Catherine Bray


Anatomy of a Fall – first-look review

A woman has to stand trial after her husband dies in suspicious circumstances in Justine Triet's compelling courtroom drama.

Is there a specific word in film criticism for the kind of realistic drama in which people’s worst nightmares seem to be coming true, and if not, should there be? They’re a bit like horror movies, but more tonally plausible. Think Andy Dufresne getting sent to prison in The Shawshank Redemption, Humphrey Bogart’s murder suspect in In a Lonely Place, or the family running from an avalanche in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure.

The director Justine Triet’s latest is a particularly finely wrought addition to this mini-genre, as middle-class author Sandra (Sandra Hüller) finds herself standing trial for the murder of her husband, who has died after falling or being pushed from a balcony in their scenic chalet in the French Alps. There are no witnesses – their only son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) was out walking with his scene-stealing dog Snoop at the time.

But where this film differs from films with similar premises is that there is no clear antagonist or obviously charming hero here. Furthermore, Sandra ticks a number of boxes for qualities that are often seen as unlikeable in women: verging on cold, but very assertive, she is uninterested in behaving conventionally, standing her ground and centring herself in her own narrative in a way that her defence lawyer (in a beautifully judged performance from Swann Arlaud) advises her to tone down. And yet, while it would have been easy to write the film as a full-throated feminist roar of frustration, Triet isn’t interested in making a pat polemic, and she complicates things by making Sandra legitimately iffy in a number of ways – for one thing, Sandra doesn’t actually have an alibi.

This allows the film to explore the effects of uncertainty, not just within the legal system, but in the eyes of the viewer. Filmmakers and scriptwriters will sometimes turn to “ambiguity” as a catch-all excuse for muddy or tepid writing, but to write uncertainty in a way that keeps the viewer tense as a coiled spring throughout a hefty two and half hour runtime is a rare gift.

The stand-out scene (in a film with several contenders) is an argument between Sandra and her late husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), seen in flashback. Unbeknownst to Sandra, Samuel recorded audio of the entire fight, a recording which the prosecution now has access to. You can’t help but wonder how you yourself would come across in a courtroom if someone taped you losing your temper. Quite apart from being on trial for murder, this public showcasing of something as personal as a fight that cuts to the core of a relationship’s most fundamental issues feels more exposing than any number of leaked sex tapes ever could.

This is Triet’s fourth feature film, and her control of the material and commitment to allowing her zesty premise and exceptional cast carry the film without the need for any pyrotechnic stylistic quirks or genre trappings confirm her as a major talent at the peak of her powers. It is thrilling to imagine the films she will make in future, but also to luxuriate in the perfect composure of this film, which doesn’t contain a single false note. And speaking of notes: after watching this film, you’ll never listen to 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. the same way again: a cover of the song by the Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band is practically a character in the film in its own right, in a way that is too daring and delicious to spoil here.

Published 22 May 2023

Tags: Justine Triet

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