Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

‘Anatomy’ a riveting exploration of love gone wrong

As a study on the physics of a marriage, “Anatomy of a Fall” is all about gravity and its effects when the bottom falls out and a relationship collapses to the ground, broken and bloodied. Survival unlikely.

That, pardon the expression, is the jumping-off point for a candid examination of a marriage plunging from the heights of idealism into the abyss of reality. But this fission is but a microcosm of millions of matrimonies in which romance is compromised by the everyday mechanics of life. Like most of us, Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and Samuel (Samuel Theis) begin this bond full of optimism, only to be split by the divergent properties of success and failure. Both are writers, united by a shared “intellectual stimulation” – until Sandra starts pumping out best-sellers while Samuel becomes paralyzed by inertia. Jealousy and resentment ensue… till death they do part.

How Samuel wound up on the coroner’s slab and Sandra on trial for murder is just the beginning of the intrigue director Justine Triet creates with her Cannes-winning dissection of a partnership gone horribly wrong. That she and her co-writer – and husband, Arthur Harari – construct it as a courtroom drama only enhances the juiciness of a marriage subjected to a very public autopsy. After all, who wants their private lives exposed to strangers eager to pass judgment based on shaky facts presented out of context? We’d no doubt be humiliated.

Not Sandra, who defiantly maintains her dignity amid the prosecution’s relentless attempts to paint her as an unfeeling animal of vicious intent. Triet places you inside the jury box, as a string of tawdry revelations – infidelity, neglect, various psychoses – leave you vacillating between Sandra’s guilt and innocence. But the only opinion that truly matters is that of Sandra and Samuel’s visually impaired 11-year-old son, Daniel (a superb Milo Machado Graner), the film’s on-the-nose symbol of “blind justice.”

Daniel is also the discoverer of his father’s lifeless body sprawled in the bloodied snow outside the family’s under-repair chalet at the foot of the French Alps in Grenoble. Did Samuel jump from the third-floor loft? Or, was he pushed by Sandra, the only other person at home? These are the questions Triet sends whirling through the mind over an enthralling 151 minutes of clever, provocative filmmaking. Yet, what I admire most are the subtle nuances she conveys concerning sexist attitudes. Issues such as a woman’s responsibility with respect to child-rearing and the extent of her obligation to prop up a sad-sack husband willing to burden her with his mounting financial and professional failings.

It’s a state of self-loathing compounded by Samuel’s belief that Sandra blames him for the accident that cost Daniel his sight. But does she really? Well, yes and no. We’re never truly certain. It’s an effective component of Triet’s objective to explore the essence of truth and the stories we tell ourselves in the absence of knowable “facts.” It’s a part of every union, the realization that a spouse never fully knows their partner, leaving each to subjectively fill in the blanks with what they choose to believe.

That uncertainty is the very core of the story. Triet seems resolute in her belief that we live our lives firmly rooted at the intersection of reality and fiction. In her eyes, our truth is only what we perceive it to be. Like Sandra says, “How can I prove I loved him.” She can’t, and that’s the point. It’s purely supposition on the part of others.

If this sounds esoteric and existential, so be it. But at its heart, “Anatomy of a Fall” is a highly entertaining endeavor rivaling “Gone Girl” with its suggestion that a rocky marriage might be a viable motive for murder. There’s also the same aura of gaslighting in this sketchy alliance, which is metaphorically underscored by the fact that he speaks French and she speaks German. That leaves English as their DMZ, but it’s always been a fragile detente. And it’s only gotten worse in the wake of Daniel’s accident and a recent move from London to Samuel’s hometown of Grenoble. Or, as Sandra snarkily calls it, his turf.

Caught in the middle is Daniel, whose only sure ally is his beloved guide dog, Snoop, a pooch as smart as he is adorable. BTW, keep an eye on him. He might be a dog, but he’s far more astute about what’s going on than any human.

Accompanying Triet on this fascinating journey is Hüller, best known as the breakout star of the Oscar-nominated “Toni Erdmann.” She projects such a commanding presence it’s tempting to label her the Teutonic Meryl Streep. And there is, in fact, a lot of Streep in her, especially the commitment to remaining true to her character, no matter how unsavory and unlikable she may become. Yet, by the end, you’re suffused with empathy, which I never expected given what transpires.

Kudos also to Swann Arlaud as the tousle-haired Vincent, the close friend and barrister Sandra summons to lead her defense team. Although never fully disclosed, it’s obvious the two share a tangled, possibly star-crossed past that injects an element of restrained romantic tension into the proceedings. And words cannot do justice to the outstanding work by Antoine Reinartz as the pit-bull prosecutor, merciless in his assaults on Sandra, as he relentlessly confronts her with every ugly detail of her life, all as an enraptured universe of voyeurs look on. It’s almost as enthralling as witnessing the vast disparities between the American justice system and a French jurisprudence that inexplicably encourages and seemingly embraces hearsay.

The level of realism Triet achieves is astounding, but not surprising. An ardent student of the hundreds of courtroom dramas Hollywood has cranked out over the decades, Triet boldly embraces the conventions she’s simultaneously seeking to upend. The very title, an homage to Otto Preminger’s masterful “Anatomy of a Murder” (starring Quincy’s Lee Remick), establishes that intent. And she does it with conviction and style. Next on her docket is another arena of judgment, the Oscars. For that trial, Triet has built a persuasive case, one in which her unique take on the volatile physics of marriage is almost certain to prevail.

Movie review

Anatomy of a Fall

Rated: R for sexual references, violent images, some language

Cast: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Samuel Theis and Antoine Reinartz

Director: Justine Triet

Writers: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari

Runtime: 151 minutes

Grade: A-

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