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'Anatomy of a Fall' Review

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May 26, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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Anatomy of a Fall premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Neon will release it in theaters later this year.

An 11-year-old boy named Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) decides to take his dog Snoop for a walk while his parent’s marriage is crumbling in real time. The family is currently living near the top of the French Alps at the insistence of the husband, far away from anything or anyone. Daniel is legally blind but is still able to get by on his acute hearing and memory. At the end of the walk Snoop bolts for something on the ground, and as the ever-loyal companion that he is, barks to signal Daniel over to investigate. As Daniel feels around he begins to process the reality that the object between his hands and the snow is the lifeless body of his father Samuel (Samuel Theis). Blood begins to stain his hands, as his father’s fatal head wound continues to gush.

The cause of death is quite apparent, but how it happened is still a mystery. A suicide by jumping out the top window? An accidental death because of the loose railing on the balcony? Or did the only other person in the house, the embittered wife Sandra (Sandra Hüller), murder her husband? A pile of clues, coincidences, and conjectures point to all three options being a possibility.

“I’m innocent. You know that, right?” asks Sandra to Daniel as she’s just about to go on trial. Daniel wants to believe his mother, but at this point, there’s just enough evidence to push him beyond a reasonable doubt. Writer/director Justine Triet, proving that sophomore slump can work in reverse after the so-so response to her 2019 Cannes debut Sibyl, puts us in the same boat as Daniel. The whole puzzle is never revealed, nor are the pieces the same size for each character or audience member. Sometimes pieces change because of new information, and sometimes they change because people want them to, such as the lawyer assigned against Sandra who’s goal is to twist everything she has to stay into a conviction.

Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari (also her partner) pack an HBO prestige miniseries into 150 minutes. The twists and turns come without the thrills one would usually expect from the procedural genre, and they can sometimes be a bit circular and used for runtime padding, but they still pack the emotional and physical effect that they should. While not as arty as other recent French courtroom dramas like Saint Omer and The Goldman Case (featuring Harari as a lawyer), the balance here between authentic and theatrical is a breath of fresh air when compared to the by-the-numbers conventions within American film and television.

Similar to Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, also birthed at Cannes and featuring an investigation surrounding a woman accused of pushing her husband to her death, Anatomy of a Fall is not just a trial over murder, it’s a trial over a relationship. Between the recordings Samuel had on his laptop of their arguments and the testimony of those who knew them, Sandra and Samuel’s entire history is placed upon the public for all to scrutinize. Sandra knows her truth about their time together, but it seems no one else shares her viewpoint. Hüller is astonishing in her calmness, commanding the English, French, and German language. She’s this year’s Cate Blanchett in Tár or Kristen Stewart in Spencer, a one-woman show that hedges all its bets on its star. Along with her radically different work in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, expect Hüller to be the critics’ pick in this year’s Oscar race.

Even for all the goods it displays, Anatomy of a Fall still doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi that makes it the top-tier great movie it should be. No matter, as those current indescribable bugs may become features to me at a later date. Just as it does to Sandra, the ultimate truth that’s always been right in front of you may not reveal itself until you’re ready to face it.

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