‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Review: Justine Triet Puts a Marriage on Trial in Thought-Provoking Courtroom Drama

Depending on where you come down on the question of its main character’s guilt or innocence, Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” could be seen as a kind of “Gone Girl” in reverse: A frustrated writer dies of suspicious causes, leaving behind clues that implicate his wife (Sandra Hüller).

If the man’s death was a suicide — and the bilingual (half-English) movie strongly points in that direction — then there’s a terrible cruelty to what follows, as his grieving wife is hauled into court and tried for his murder. Their 11-year-old son is obsessed with trying to make sense of what happened, whereas it’s the death of the marriage, not the husband, that preoccupies Triet. Can any couple’s relationship withstand the kind of scrutiny this one is subjected to, as old fights and infidelities are dragged into the open?

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One of seven women filmmakers in competition at Cannes this year, Triet has taken a familiar genre (the courtroom drama) and turned that format on its head, much as fellow French helmer Alice Diop did the year before with “Saint Omer” — though the two couldn’t be more different in approach. Where Diop’s film was diamond sharp and rigorously formalist, holding on its remorseless defendant for breathless minutes on end, Triet assumes a more jagged, pseudo-documentary style, taking two and a half hours to excavate and unpack the secrets of this hypothetical couple.

From the opening scene, set in an unfinished chalet in the French Alps, it often feels as if the movie is eavesdropping on moments too intimate to be shared — except that husband and wife are both novelists, and domestic conflict serves as the raw material of their work. A tennis ball tumbles down the wooden stairs (everything, even the liberating sensation of love, obeys the laws of gravity here), introducing Snoop, the family’s adorable border collie — an obvious front-runner for Cannes’ unofficial “Palm Dog” prize. Sandra’s son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), is blind, but the dog sees everything … and seems to understand even more.

Sandra (Hüller) is being interviewed downstairs by a journalist when her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), starts blasting the steel-drum beat from 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” on a loop from above, forcing her to cut the meeting short. Daniel goes for a walk, only to find his father’s body lying lifeless in the snow upon his return. Sandra has hardly had time to grieve his death before the investigation turns to her. Something about the way Samuel landed doesn’t sit right with the authorities. They have no one to suspect but his wife, who claims to have been asleep in the room below the deafening music when it happened.

The breakout star of “Toni Erdmann” (a film that should have won the Palme, or at least best actress, at Cannes in 2016), Hüller plays Sandra as simultaneously weary and alert. The tragedy that cost Daniel his sight snapped something in the couple long ago. Sandra is a brilliant woman — and a far more successful writer than her husband ever was — but she’s overwhelmed by the investigation and slow to recognize the severity of what’s happening. Sandra’s apparently so sure of her own innocence that she doesn’t realize she could be found responsible for his death, although the mad crush of media cameras outside the courtroom make those stakes acutely clear for audiences (she’s something of a celebrity, after all).

Sandra calls on an old friend, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), to defend her, but the choice seems counter-productive — as does her insistence on expressing herself in English on the stand. The French legal system doesn’t work the way the American one does, which can be confusing at times, but incredibly satisfying to watch at others, as French courts give the judge, advocate general (Antoine Reinartz) and defense attorney room to get philosophical (as in one digression so wordy, it could be mistaken for closing remarks). For Sandra to be found innocent, her side must “prove” that Samuel committed suicide. Meanwhile, pointing out that Sandra’s novels have all drawn heavily from her life, the AG — a real barracuda whose aggressive cross-examination makes her out to be a monster — introduces passages from her books as evidence.

More damning still are elements Samuel had been collecting for a radical autofiction project: emails, notes and audio files from his life, including a recording of a blistering argument between him and Sandra made the day before his death. This passage serves as the centerpiece of the trial, as well as the film: an undeniably eloquent evisceration of whatever remains of Samuel and Sandra’s marriage, which reveals his insecurities and a deep resentment about an aborted book idea of his own, which Samuel accuses her of “plundering.”

Whatever we make of the trial, the most important reaction comes from Daniel, who’d been firmly in his mother’s corner at first, and who we watch develop doubts along the way. In one scene, while the lawyers are going at it, Triet focuses on the boy’s face and cuts to his imagined version of what happened: Did his dad fall, or did Sandra push him? Late in the trial, the boy asks to give additional testimony. More concerned with Daniel’s feelings than her own fate, Sandra insists that he be truthful, but is nervous when he asks to spend the weekend before taking the stand without her.

This is the toughest aspect of the case so far, as the boy (emerging as the focal character quite late in the film) has been made to discover terrible things about both of his parents, and is now obliged to decide what to believe. Triet asks audiences to make a similar choice: Do we get hung up on what happened to Samuel, debating Sandra’s guilt or innocence, or do we follow this uncommonly mature film through all its layers, seeing rarely expressed truths about 21st-century relationships in its trajectory?

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