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Proof is irrelevant in the brilliant courtroom drama ‘Anatomy of a Fall’

by TYLER WILSON/Coeur Voice Contributor
| November 11, 2023 1:00 AM

In the year’s most captivating performance, German actress Sandra Hüller plays a novelist accused of murdering her husband. ‘Anatomy of a Fall,’ directed/co-written by French filmmaker Justine Triet, never reveals the “objective” truth. The truth is unknowable, and so we’re only left to decide between the improbabilities.

Hüller, a breakout in the 2016 German comedy “Toni Erdmann” and the upcoming Holocaust-set drama “Zone of Interest,” plays Sandra, a writer we first meet being interviewed by a young admirer at her remote home in the French mountains. Loud music begins playing from upstairs, a clear passive-aggressive move by Sandra’s husband (Samuel Maleski, who goes largely unseen until an extended flashback later in the film). The interviewer leaves, as does the couple’s son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), who takes the family dog Snoop on a walk through the snowy surroundings. Daniel is partially blind, stemming from an accident early in life. It’s Daniel and Snoop who later stumble upon the husband’s body lying dead in the snow.

Sandra claims to have been asleep. She thinks he fell from the attic. The police, meanwhile, notice details that don’t align with an accidental fall. Sandra soon hires an old attorney friend (Swann Arlaud), who tells her that her only chance to defend against a murder charge is to persuade the court that her husband committed suicide.

The movie almost exclusively follows Sandra through the wrenching process, though it would be a mistake to say “Anatomy of a Fall” is told from her perspective. The movie, in all its meticulous detail of the potential crime and extensive trial, is about how Sandra presents to those around her. Her lawyer believes in Sandra’s innocence but never misses an opportunity to inquire about uncomfortable truths. The prosecution sees her as an obvious villain — a writer who mines her own life’s traumas for the plotlines of her books. Daniel, meanwhile, is forced between two impossible conclusions. Either his dad committed suicide without ever revealing his depressive tendencies, or his mother is capable of a heinous act of evil.

It’s the complexity of Hüller’s performance that elevates an already meticulously crafted script (by Triet and Arthur Harari) into near-flawless territory. Sandra is succinct and witty, vulnerable and stoic, and emotionally attuned to her son and late husband while also withholding insecurities about their relationship dynamics. There is/was obvious love and admiration between Sandra and Samuel, but the marriage was also spiraling into disfunction. Sandra is a full, vibrant character that can’t be labeled as any one thing, an essential characterization for what the movie is asking its other characters (and the audience) to determine.

“Anatomy of a Fall,” like the movie that inspired its title (1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder”), is ultimately a tension-fueled courtroom thriller. Set in a French courtroom, the popularized rules of American trials aren’t at play. Here, Sandra’s lawyer and the prosecutor (a slick and effective Antonie Reinartz) briskly move between interviewing witnesses and interrogating Sandra. The film’s dialogue is about 50 percent in French and 50 percent in English, a language that the German Sandra speaks more comfortably with the court and her family.

All combined, this faster rhythm that mixes languages facilitates a kinetic tone where witnesses, experts and lawyers clash against each other, all serving to further the mystery, test Sandra’s endurance, and feed new potential revelations to Daniel, who sits in the back of the courtroom observing the trial theatrics.

In a movie about casting judgment on a wife accused of murdering her husband, dynamics of gender, motherhood, artistry and intimate relationships vibrate through the narrative. The aforementioned flashback scene between Sandra and Samuel rivals the centerpiece throwdown in 2019’s “Marriage Story,” and Triet makes a number of non-traditional visual decisions in order to penetrate the relationship between them, as well as the growing conflict between Sandra and her son. As a bonus, “Anatomy of a Fall” also incorporates a vital canine performance, as Snoop proves to be a significant factor in the film’s emotional climax.

Sandra’s guilt or innocence will no doubt be a talking point for audiences after seeing “Anatomy of a Fall.” Before the opening credits roll, the movie even opens to a prompt for a website titled, DidSheDoIt.com. Yet, the film leaves the audience with many more things to ponder, chiefly in how Daniel ultimately factors into the trial. “Anatomy of a Fall” is a top-grade courtroom thriller with rich characters, sterling performances and a penetrating, haunting examination of how to reconcile unconditional love with inescapable darkness.

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Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com.