Film Review: Anatomy of a Fall | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Anatomy of a Fall

Studio: Neon
Director: Justine Triet

Oct 12, 2023 Web Exclusive
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“The following content may contain suicide or self-harm topics.” So says a warning viewers are asked to acknowledge on YouTube ahead of the official trailer for the North American release of Anatomy of a Fall. Although it’s likely stock phrasing (and an important message, to be sure), these words are quite telling. May contain. That is the central question: is Samuel’s death his own doing, or was he done in by his wife Sandra? Even the content warning can’t be sure.

Co-written and directed by Justine Triet, Anatomy of a Fall was the recipient of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Largely a legal procedural, it is not an obvious pick for a prize usually reserved for the avant-garde. In the film a successful German author, Sandra Voyter (played by Sandra Hüller), has recently moved with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) to a secluded home in the beautiful, snow-capped French Alps. After going for a walk with his dog Snoop, Daniel, who is blind, finds his father unresponsive and bleeding in the snow just outside their home. The wheels of justice are set in motion from here as the authorities seek to determine whether Samuel’s “fall” was a jump or precipitated by Sandra.

Language is a heavy and thorny issue in this film. Not only is Sandra’s inability to stick to French a potential disadvantage as it may “other” her in the eyes of the court, but we learn that it was a sticking point in her marriage, as well. Not sharing a first language, Sandra and Samuel compromised by primarily speaking to one another in the “neutral” language of English.

Plot-wise, the film doesn’t shy away from these small complexities. The film is awash in minor issues that aren’t resolved, are inconsequential, or could muddle the story. A script doctor might advise that, being that they aren’t major levers within the story, these scenes should be cut. There’s a court-appointed companion for Daniel, tasked with ensuring his testimony isn’t influenced, who in the end might have influenced him most of all. There’s a love-tinged backstory left unexplored between Sandra and her lawyer. Even the language issues mentioned above could have been seen as wholly unnecessary convolutions. The inclusion of these details, though, creates a constellation that maps out the myriad ways in which the justice system, human behavior, and so much else in life is imperfect.

Given all that the film encompasses with its two-and-a-half hour run time, one might think the narrative would plod forward slowly, but the edit is very well-paced. Even a very long argument between Sandra and Samuel feels necessary in its full form. In some ways the scene is the linchpin of the film: our best hope to understand how their relationship had putrefied and would prove fatal for Samuel the very next day.

One of the more masterful elements of the film involves Sandra and Daniel’s musings on piano. Triet uses these moments to telegraph the characters’ state of mind, understandings, or intentions. After Daniel changes a detail of his account to the police — perhaps in an effort to protect his mother — he plays a panicked melody on the family’s home piano. Sandra approaches to show him a slower, yet equally dark, song. It’s a methodical, slow burn. Is she teaching Daniel how she calmly navigates dark waters? Later, once Daniel arrives at some assurance about his role in the proceedings, he plays his own version of a slow song. His is less moody or cunning than his mother’s; rather, his playing is determined, with notes of hope.

Truth be told, the physical violence surrounding Samuel’s death would be far more sensationalized in the hands of most other directors. Instead, Triet focuses on the “civilized violence of the prosecution,” as she described it in an interview, and the other mechanisms of the justice system. For this reason, Anatomy of a Fall may not be as visually memorable for viewers as other Palme d’Or winners. Still, many will agree that it is a prime example of an expertly balanced film. The entire cast delivers truly skilled performances. Hüller carefully wields immense subtlety, leaving us teetering yet ultimately balanced in our understanding of Sandra’s guilt or innocence. Conversely, Graner plays Daniel’s emotions on the sleeve in a gifted display well beyond his years. Even Theis, whose appearance is brief, crafts a suitable counterweight to Hüller’s performance.

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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