The titular “fall” in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall is a double entendre. In the simplest terms, the film is a courtroom drama centered around a man who fell to his death. In more metaphorical terms, it’s also the slow decline and gradual fall of a marriage that becomes derailed by deceit, an inability to communicate, and infidelity. It demands incredible patience from the viewer, and it might alienate you with its methodical, cold narrative.
Within the opening 15 minutes, the screenwriters Triet and Arthur Harari present us with a dynamic setup. Sandra Hüller plays Sandra, who we see is about to give an interview about her life with a famous author. As the interview begins, loud music starts to blare through this spacious home in the mountains of Grenoble. It’s the work of Sandra’s husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), who is blasting the instrumental of 50 Cent’s anthemic “P.I.M.P.” of all songs. It grows progressively louder until the interview becomes impossible to conduct. Frustrated, the interviewer leaves while the couple’s blind son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), takes the family dog, Snoop, for a walk. When he returns, Snoop finds Samuel lying in the snow directly beneath their two-story attic window, his head bloodied. Did he trip and fall from the balcony? Was it a suicide? Was he pushed?
For much of its runtime (two-and-a-half hours total), Anatomy of a Fall portrays the investigation and subsequent trial around Samuel’s death in explicit detail. It’s procedural in its examination not just in the realm of fact-finding and reenactments, but also in the way Sandra’s life is essentially put on trial too. Her life, along with her relationship with Samuel, gets parsed with a fine-tooth comb by police, detectives, and eventually, a jury. Samuel’s therapist enters the picture; the interviewer we met in the opening minutes resurfaces to describe the woman she met that day. The closest witness to the event is a blind child, who might be too young and impressionable to be present in the courtroom as the finer details get hashed out. Triet and Harari also present a compelling case that Sandra could’ve been the one responsible.
The sheer length of the film and its clear obsession with minute details might lead you to believe that Triet is manipulating us as viewers, but there’s something more elaborate going on here. Anatomy of a Fall is as much about figuring out the truth behind a mystifying, inconclusive death as it is examining how a relationship falls apart. Flashbacks reveal Sandra and Samuel’s relationship was greatly hampered by control, infidelity, and yes, physical violence. One important detail that’s easy to gloss over is that neither Sandra nor Samuel can communicate to one another in their native language (she is German, he is French). They speak to one another in English, while their son has lost the ability to see due to an accident. The barriers have been standing so long that they are almost impenetrable.
Sandra Hüller is outstanding as a woman who finds her entire existence on trial throughout the film. She handles the film’s most emotional moments with a resonant poise. Hüller is the ideal anchor because she plays this multi-faceted, complicated person with all the layer required.
Anatomy of a Fall asks a lot of the viewer when it comes to bearing with its pacing, its infrequent reveals, and the fact that it thrusts us into this long, windy trial while dedicating itself to painstaking detail. Its many accolades and awards nominations will lead many to see it, which is good, but I’m unsure of how many will be willing to stick with it, especially in the streaming era. The faithful will be rewarded, but the clinical nature does make it alienate about as often as it captivates.
NOTE: As of this writing, Anatomy of a Fall is available to stream on multiple platforms.
Starring: Sandra Hüller, Milo Machado Graner, Swann Arlaud, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaieb, Camille Rutherford, Anne Rotger, Sophie Fillières, and Messi the Dog. Directed by: Justine Triet.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!