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Anatomy of a Fall ★★★★



Director: Justine Triet

Cast: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Antoine Reinartz

Released: Cannes Film Festival 2023

On the last day of the Cannes Film Festival, I eagerly awaited the closing ceremony with high hopes for my favourite films I got to watch during the festival. As I found myself trying to understand the exclusively French-language coverage of the award ceremony on a screen in front of the Palais, one of my biggest hopes was that Anatomy of a Fall would win at least something. And I have to admit, I was somewhat disappointed when I did not hear the French version of the title mentioned during the Best Actress award earlier in the evening. When the Palme d’Or was announced, I had to look at the people next to me to make sure that I had understood the winning filming correctly: did I hear that correctly? Did Anatomy of a Fall actually win the Palme d’Or at Cannes? It seemed like a dream that would never become true.

But it was true. And so, right before my eyes, Anatomy of a Fall beat all the odds I had envisioned in my head prior to the ceremony and received the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival. And, perhaps just as importantly, Anatomy of a Fall’s Palme d’Or win also marked the third woman director ever to win the prestigious award since its introduction in 1955, almost 70 years ago. Similarly, as noted by Jane Fonda during the award ceremony, only seven women have ever competed for the highest price awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. While this is bittersweet, as it often happens with the shattering of such glass ceilings, it is an achievement that is necessary to note to underline the historical moment this year’s Palme d’Or marked, one that is inevitably tied to the movie itself.

Anatomy of a Fall starts with Sandra (Sandra Hüller), a successful writer, who is trying to give an interview in a chalet in the French Alps. However, she soon has to stop the interview because her husband Samuel (Swann Arlaud) is blasting his music while renovating upstairs. Soon after, their son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) returns from a walk and finds his dad’s body in the snow outside the chalet. Nothing is certain about his death: was he pushed by somebody? Did he fall accidentally? Did he purposefully jump? These are the questions that Sandra herself keeps obsessing over, the same questions we, as the audience, desperately want to find a definite answer to. Samuel’s death starts a police investigation and legal process, which will see Sandra accused of her husband’s murder. The film revolves around the trial as the court attempts to establish what really happened that fateful day through police reports, Daniel’s own testimony and, maybe most importantly, the defence handled by Sandra’s lawyer, her old friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud).

Interestingly, Anatomy of a Fall does not take a side nor give us a straightforward answer. In an objective style that is somewhat reminiscent of documentary filmmaking, the movie strives to portray a neutral version of the events. In fact, the audience finds themselves almost in the shoes of the court: with no real evidence of what happened, we have to face the facts as they are being presented to decide whether Sandra is guilty or not. Perhaps this is the reason why Anatomy of a Fall never offers any flashback footage of what actually happened when Samuel died. And, as such, we are left wondering the same questions the film arises at the beginning: what did happen to Samuel? While the court may reach a verdict at the end of the film, some uncertainty still remains surrounding Samuel’s death. As suggested by Vincent previously in the movie, the trial is not so much about the truth but rather the perception of the truth. And, can we really establish the truth if we do not see how Samuel dies?

Perhaps the answer is yes, at least in Anatomy of a Fall. After all, the key witness in this case is Daniel, who has not seen – and could have not seen – what happened. As it is revealed pretty early in the film, Daniel suffered an incident when he was younger, which led him to lose his vision. As the film progresses, and so does the investigation of Samuel’s death, the audience discovers more and more details about the family dynamic and relationship between Sandra and Samuel, many of which are taken apart in every little detail during the trial. It is soon established that Daniel’s incident caused resentment on both sides as Sandra blamed Samuel on her part, and Samuel himself always felt guilty for the incident as Daniel was under his care at the time, unveiling the complicated reality of their relationship in the past few years that Sandra did not want to revisit.  

One of the most impressive elements of the film is its lead actress. Hüller manages to deliver a heartfelt and show-stopping performance in two languages, none of which are her native language, as she acts in both French and English in the movie. Overall, the acting is very impressive from everyone involved, most of whom deliver convincing performances in both languages as well. Similarly, Anatomy of a Fall stands out for its well-constructed screenplay, which manages to include both languages quite naturally. The very use of both French and English and the switch between the two is also cleverly worked into the plot of the movie.

While the film remains an outstanding product, it spends a little too much time on the conversations between Sandra and her lawyer. Their backstory may be interesting and somewhat contribute to their relationship in the present, but it is not nearly as compelling as the gripping drama that unfolds before our eyes for the majority of Anatomy of a Fall. However, the film never fails to maintain its pace, thus making all its 150 minutes of runtime count and feel essential. A successful mix between a courtroom drama, a thriller, and a murder mystery, Anatomy of a Fall keeps the audience at the edge of their seat until the very last minute.

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