Saturday November 04, 2023
Movie Review: Anatomy of a Fall (2023)
Watching, I assumed “Anatomy of a Fall,” which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, was based on a hit novel that every women’s book group was currently reading. Nope, it’s an original screenplay by Arthur Harari and director Justine Triet, who wrote it specifically for German actress Sandra Hüller, who’s amazing.
But I was bored at times. It’s basically a “Lady or the Tiger?” proposition. Did she or didn’t she? Or: Was it an accident, suicide, or murder? Like in Frank R. Stockton’s short story, this one too is left ambiguous. It’s left for viewers to wrangle it out afterwards.
My main takeaway, though, is this: That’s one weird court system you’ve set up, France.
The non-smoking gun
It begins with dissonance. In a picturesque French chalet, two women talk and flirt over glasses of wine. Are they friends? No, it’s an interview, midday. The younger, hotter one (Camille Rutherford) is interviewing the older one, a novelist, Sandra Voyter (Hüller), but it’s odd. Why is Sandra flirting so? Why is the boy washing the dog upstairs and sniffing his coat? And when Sandra’s unseen husband begins banging away at a project in the attic, playing his music loudly, why doesn’t Sandra tell him to turn it down for a bit? She seems like the type not to suffer fools, but she suffers this. The flirtation, and the interview, end.
Then the boy, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), who is blind or near blind, takes the dog for a walk, or the dog takes him, and when they return, Dad, Samuel (Samuel Theis), is laying on the snowy ground outside, a discarded rag doll, blood seeping from his head.
Here’s why I think she didn’t do it. When the boy yells for her, she comes outside, sleepily at first, and her reaction to seeing her husband’s rag-doll body—that electric jolt and movement toward the stairs—well, Sandra Hüller is actress enough to pull it off but not Sandra Voyter. And for an audience of no one? The boy can’t see. Hers is a natural reaction to sudden tragedy.
And then the tragedy deepens. Police arrive, take measurements, ask questions. That top window is rather high. It would be tough for him to fall out of it, unless … Was he drunk? No, she says, he didn’t drink during the day. Was he suicidal? No, she says. Her matter-of-fact answers are eliminating all the explanations that might exonerate her. Basically, she’s forcing the cops to choose murder. And then they find a smoking gun.
Turns out Samuel recorded conversations. He was a failed writer and was using them to either spark his imagination or eliminate the need for it. And the day before his death, he recorded a doozy of an argument between himself and Sandra. We don’t hear this/see this until the 11th hour, and when we do, well, I had two thoughts: It’s one of the most realistic arguments between a couple I’ve seen in a movie; and … that’s their smoking gun? It’s a fight between a long-married couple, one successful and one not, whose sole offspring was blinded under their care. All that’s buried emerges.
Most of the movie is a trial in a French courtroom, where there’s a panel of judges, including a mostly ineffectual Presidente du tribunal (Anne Rotger), an avocat general who looks more like a skinhead (Antoine Reinartz), and a defense attorney and old family friend, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), whose got amazing fox-like eyes, and who may, inexplicably, have a thing for Sandra. I don’t know how accurate it all is to French jurisprudence, but one thing I liked is how free-floating the courtroom conversation can be. It’s not like in the U.S. where one person is in the witness box, impaneled to answer questions, and everyone else shut the fuck up. Here, the impaneled stands in the center of the courtroom, and others can be invited into the conversation. And apparently it’s OK for l’avocat general to propose outlandish theories in the middle of testimony? Like French talk shows, it got a little philosophical. As an American, familiar with U.S. courtroom dramas, I was like, “Can someone give me something substantial? A rock or pebble of a fact rather than all this air?”
The key throughout is the son, Daniel, who either heard or didn’t hear his parents’ final conversation before heading on his walk. But … is he protecting his mother? Is he withholding information? And if so, is he—who was closer to the father—about to cut her loose? One evening, we watch Renzi and Sandra drinking and flirting outside—the fliration is sudden and weird—and then we see Daniel in bed, listening to them; and the next day in trial he has extra closed-door testimony and that evening he demands that Mom stay somewhere else. It’s like he can’t stand being near her all of a sudden. (The way she breaks down and cries as she’s being driven away … holy crap.)
But he’s not cutting her loose.
His life as a dog
It’s a little complicated, involving vomit and aspirin, and whose vomit is it anyway, and he nearly kills his dog in the process, but amid it all he remembers his father talking about the dog, Snoop, and how he won’t be around forever, and he’s realizing retroactively, that Dad was actually talking about himself. He was talking about suicide.
The kid is great. A few times, in his speech, I flashed on Jean-Pierre Leaud from “400 Blows”—that boyhood attempt to sound more adult than you are. Or maybe it’s that French boys sound more adult than American boys. Or maybe it indicates the paucity of my French film knowledge. Anyway, I liked him.
“Anatomy of a Fall” is a long, quiet film, too long and maybe too quiet, and its central character, Sandra, is not likable at all, which, yes, is part of the point. It helps with the lady-or-tiger question. She is, however, eminently believable. She feels like an acquaintance of an acquaintance that I can’t stand, and that winds up in my circle maybe two times a year. Oh crap, her again. Oh well. It’s why, at the end, when she’s exonerated, and she and Renzi are celebrating at a restaurant, drinking and flirting, and it looks like they might kiss, I had to shield my eyes.