Winner of the Palme d’or at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall is a remarkable achievement. This film moves beyond the police procedural to investigate the nature of truth. It’s an artistically refreshing take.
Merging the murder mystery thriller with a family drama, Triet creates a dense and more profoundly touching narrative throughline. She unravels facts with brilliant, methodical precision in a way that exposes different versions of reality when suddenly the film becomes a forensic investigation of a marriage. In some ways it’s like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from A Marriage merged with Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. It’s at this point, the courtroom drama acquires greater impact.
Sandra Hüller is impeccable as Sandra, a writer who is on trial for the murder of her husband. She can be inscrutable – which doesn’t help her in this matter – but displays her true emotions in flashbacks. It is not clear what happened to Samuel (Samuel Theis) since there were no apparent witnesses. The investigation and trial consist of facts from experts who analyse what evidence they can glean from the scene of his death. These specialists can only put forward theories and speculations as Sandra’s team presents contrary facts given by other experts to argue that it was suicide. In between these contrasting perspectives, the prosecutor offers his own thoughts, an altogether different level of fiction even at the best of times.
This riveting, deeply affecting film takes on an odd-man-out quality both in terms of the children’s game and the eponymous artistic works (the play by Harold Pinter and the unrelated film by Carol Reed) where at any given point it rotates on an axis that lands on each victim. The parents battle each other but their only child who is caught in the middle ends up having a certain privileged vantage point. All members of this family are in actuality victims at any given time, depending on the perspective presented. Even the dog seems to know something.
Through the evidence presented, the audience is given more pieces to the puzzle of both the marital conflict and the tensions within the family. At times it’s like trying to open a hermetically sealed door. But any insight provided reveals, with startling candour, the effects of these tensions on the child, Daniel (played with piercing vulnerability by Milo Machado-Graner).
In Anatomy of a Fall, Triet’s camera is the most crucial witness to the truth, not that it can reveal much more than a limited point of view. It reveals to the audience only certain events and even then, its power is limited by the fact that it is a representational entity controlled by a director who only intends to show so much.
Triet’s strategy is mostly to fragment the space. There are only a few locations in this film, but she certainly gives the film a sense of frenetic energy despite this. In this way she provides hints as to what is happening with her characters.
She keeps them in close up and when the camera does move to zoom or to pan it has maximum dramatic effect. We see this especially when Daniel is on the stand and it mimics the motion of his head back and forth across the courtroom, a little boy who is being talked at by the adults, both sides of this battle so to speak.
In Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet expertly blows apart the murder mystery genre to reveal the human drama at its core. She reminds the viewer that as long as people are involved – individuals with feelings and different points of view – it is impossible to fully know the truth.
The notion of witnesses and experts, and even impartial court officers, is dismissed in Anatomy of a Fall as Triet mediates on the irrationality at the core of the film’s pivotal event. She dances along the line between the varying perspectives in an attempt to find an emotional logic, where perhaps such a thing is not even possible but it is no less worthwhile.
Anatomy of a Fall had its Canadian Premiere at TIFF 2023. Head here for more coverage from this year’s festival.