Anatomy of a Fall Review: A Riveting Dance Between Reality and Invention
Anatomy of a Fall is now playing in theaters. This review is based on a screening at the 2023 New York Film Festival.
A ball rolls down the stairs, hitting several steps and then bouncing off onto the floor, slowing to a stop somewhere nearby. In the opening seconds of Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, the ball shows us the consequences of a fall – but with no one else there to see it, it becomes the framework on which whole narratives are shaped, because who can prove they aren’t true? With this film, Triet, who wrote the script alongside Arthur Harari, impressively choreographs a riveting dance between reality and invention, between tragedy and transference into survival mode. It’s a film that will stun and steal the breath right from your throat, both from the weight of its story and the kinship it’s impossible not to feel with the main characters, who navigate the explosive landscape of truth, lies, and something in between.
A Look into the Plot
The filmmaker’s fourth feature follows Sandra (Sandra Hueller), a German writer who finds herself on trial for the murder of her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), after his unexplained plummet from the attic window of their family home. The couple’s only son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), is blind, and with him as the accident’s only witness, Sandra is forced to try to prove her innocence at trial.
The Captivating Performance of Sandra Hueller
Hueller’s performance is the beating heart of this thriller-drama. She is utterly captivating as Sandra, a dedicated, imperfect-yet-relatable mother whose psyche cracks and splits to reveal a more calculated and meticulous fighter when circumstances shift. She is just as fierce in her reserve as she is in her outbursts and it makes her endlessly compelling to watch. Her motives slowly unfurl and are laid bare as Anatomy of a Fall rotates between the courtroom and the family’s home (in both the present and recent past). Sandra is a beautiful enigma – we simply don’t know if she did it or not, and that is all on Hueller’s shoulders.
The Complexities of a Marriage
“A couple is kind of a chaos,” Sandra tells Samuel during a conversation between the pair that is depicted in flashback and admitted into evidence during the trial. That ill-fated quote sums up how their marriage has played out, and that realization is key to the mess at the heart of this tragedy. Samuel aspires to what Sandra has achieved professionally, trying his hardest to create while meeting the demands of home life and providing for his family. There is resentment on both sides, yet Sandra doesn’t think she owes her husband anything. She knows he wants something she can’t give him. That isn’t Sandra’s fault; as her attorney states, she is only guilty of “succeeding where her husband failed.” It’s cruel, but not incorrect, and the reality is devastating enough for the both of them in different ways. Choosing to highlight these complications between two people shapes the ambiguity of the truth, and it effectively puts the audience on everyone’s side.
The Courtroom Battle
The courtroom is a battleground for Sandra, and her main opponent is the prosecutor, played with a contagious verve by French actor Antoine Reinartz. It’s hard to overstate how smart and skilled Reinartz is at embodying someone who is consumed by the law. He knows exactly which questions to ask, when to ask them, and just how to dig for something incriminating. Though that’s as much a credit to Triet and Harai’s script as it is to Reinartz’s performance, the actor is just harsh and quick enough to be brazen yet professional – a perfect villain of sorts for this situation. The character needs to be a worthy adversary for Anatomy of a Fall to work, and Reinartz brings that energy in spades. What a joy to watch him verbally joust with Hueller during their time in the courtroom.
The Emotional Journey of Daniel
And then there’s Daniel. Machado-Graner plays the role with such rich emotionality that Daniel’s mental journey spins out alongside the sanitized reality of the trial – and the sheer weight of his struggle shatters any doubt that his journey could become a two-dimensional concept. The story could withstand the loss of his mental metamorphosis because the drama and intensity is baked into Anatomy of a Fall’s central problem. But it wouldn’t be the sturdy and dense film that it is, full of thought-provoking introspection on human impulse and preservation. Watching Daniel’s journey, the audience becomes him in a way. “I have to understand,” he tells his mother through tears in the aftermath of his father’s death. We, too, have to understand – that’s why we feel attached to the quest for the truth unfolding on screen.
The Importance of Sound Design and Cinematography
The sound design and music coordination of Anatomy of a Fall are just as crucial to the story and its tone as Triet’s directing, script, and weighty ensemble cast. An instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” ends up playing a pivotal role in both the tragedy of Samuel’s death and the foundation of Sandra’s isolation. It’s a tall order for such a Top 40 trifle, but one that nonetheless works in its own strange way because of how big it is when the instruments are isolated. It becomes this confusing and isolating cacophony that feels chaotic, an aural representation of what Sandra and her family are going through. Daniel’s frantic piano playing underscores some of the film’s heaviest moments, highlighting the way his emotional landscape is disrupted by the events of the film. There are distinct tensions around these sounds that serve the themes of Anatomy of a Fall.
Triet’s Brilliance as a Filmmaker
Similarly, Simon Beaufils’ cinematography is full of beautifully deliberate choices that further the sense of confusion and dissection the audience starts to feel as the story progresses. A series of meticulous closeups of Sandra when she describes the accident that blinded her son showcase the tics of a person more secretive than she lets on. The decision to shoot Daniel from alternating angles as the lawyers on either side go back and forth – without showing the attorneys – is a brilliant technique that puts us in his emotional headspace, a simple choice that does wonders for audience immersion.
All of these elements come together to build a taut, nail-biting drama that intrigues as much as it devastates. Triet shines bright as an assured filmmaker with so much to offer, from her sharp writing to her engrossing directorial eye. If she continues to craft stories that dive this deep into the psyche and heart, it will be a real joy to watch her create. These stories both serve and interrogate the soul. Anatomy of a Fall isn’t afraid to question who, within the depths of that soul, we’re capable of becoming.