A dominant film festival fave this year, with a Palme d’Or win from Cannes, the new French film Anatomy of a Fall couldn’t, on its face, be simpler. The analytical tilt of the title isn’t kidding: a single unseen death, and its tireless dissection. A man in an Alpine chalet falls from an attic window and dies, entirely off-screen, and we visit and revisit and reenact the incident over and over, to the exclusion of virtually anything else. It’s as if Justine Triet’s lengthy courtroom drama can’t itself believe it’ll ever get to the bottom of it all.
The opening sequence tells us what we’re in for, concocted as it is around absence, elision, and frustrated communication. In the chalet, Sandra (Sandra Hüller, pulling out the stops), a German writer of some success, is being chattily interviewed by a young writing student; elsewhere in the house, we’re informed, is her seeing-impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) and her unseen husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), who, apropos of what we don’t know, starts blaring obnoxious music (a steel-drum cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.”) from upstairs. The interview struggles and then surrenders to the noise, and the interviewer leaves; some time later, and we don’t know how long, Daniel sets out into the snow with his very alert service dog. When he returns, he finds his father outside, in a pool of blood.
Director Triet conscientiously disables our habit of aggregating information — we are never sure we didn’t miss something. From there, the narrative turns methodically forensic, as the investigations and interrogations and media frenzies begin, and Sandra recruits an old “lawyer friend,” Vincent (Swann Arlaud, sincere but oozing elfin suavity), to help. The death scene we never saw gets relentlessly X-rayed, dummies are dropped from the attic window, computer animations are mustered, past sex lives are autopsied, psychiatric records are explored, blood spatters are tracked, and eventually a pivotal argument, recorded surreptitiously by the husband, is exhumed and played in court.
In Triet’s scheme, upping the magnification on the meager evidence brings us so close that we can barely see anything at all. And the closer you get, the less you see outside the frame; as with the odd cutting of the opening scene, there’s always contextual tissue missing, and questions that cannot be answered. Anatomy of a Fall is, in a sense, an interrogation of its own genre: Built into the legal-mystery form is a current of viewership desire — we, like the legal professionals involved, long to uncover the truth, and have faith that a microscopic rehash of the evidence will bring us there. Triet’s parry is to maintain, over the film’s arc, that the revelatory structure of a legal trial on film can be a mirage. (The ambiguities and unknowables that so often clog up the real legal system are not popular in fiction.)
So what’s being anatomized? Not Sandra and Samuel’s marriage, quite — we only get one side of it, and not even Daniel’s agonized testimony provides clarity, particularly as he admits to avoiding his parents’ arguments. Certainly, his semi-blindness is ours as well. The trial itself, fascinating in its very relaxed and conversational Frenchness (an American lawyer would implode at all the interruptions and hearsay), does slowly peel back the layers on Sandra, who ends up lying so much, slyly and sometimes harmlessly, that we grow gradually unsure of anything she says. It’s gripping, because she seems so nakedly guileless. Hüller’s performance is a master class in openly and actively connecting us to her character’s every earnest hesitation — often complicated by her wrestling with French and English, which become in the film’s macro view just two more ways of not understanding. But her prevarications and evasions don’t add up like we want them to — she’s too real, and therefore also unknowable.
Contrary to its genre’s logic, Triet’s movie isn’t about arriving at a conclusion but the maddening vacuum between how we see others and who, in fact, they are. Because it must, the court in the film ultimately arrives at a decision. But we cannot. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.