Nominated for 11 Cesar awards and 5 Oscars, Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall was finally released in Australian cinemas this week on 25 January 2024. We’ve been impatiently waiting for its release since its Cannes Festival 2023 debut.
Anatomy of a Fall opens with Sandra (Sandra Hüller, Sibyl (2018) and Proxima, Alliance Française French Film Festival 2020), an author, being interviewed by Zoé (Camille Rutherford, Felicita, Brisbane International Film Festival 2022, Simone: Woman of the Century, JIFF 2023, and After Blue, Fantastic Film Festival 2022), a thesis student in a chalet while increasingly loud, pounding music comes from upstairs. It becomes more and more difficult for them to hear each other and so they terminate the interview. The student leaves, Sandra goes upstairs. Her vision impaired son Daniel Maleski (Milo Machado-Graner) takes the dog for a walk. On his return, he finds his Dad, Samuel (Samuel Theis) dead and bloodied at the front of the chalet. He screams for his Mum.
The police soon charge her with his murder, something she denies. The police say he was hit on the head with a blunt object before he fell, but there is no weapon anywhere to be found. Questions are raised over the timing of memories. Things come to mind now that might be significant that weren’t remembered on the day of Samuel’s death. Their timing seems all too convenient for the police. The odds are stacked against Sandra, a German woman living in France, she’s forced to do the police re-enactment in French, to only speak French to her son in the presence of the court assigned testimony protector.
She calls the only lawyer she knows, Vincent (Swann Arlaud, Perdrix and The Swallows of Kabul Alliance Française French Film Festival 2020) a friend from years ago. It’s clear that they have a past together, although it’s unclear what that is. Throughout the film, we wonder whether they might cross the line during the trial. Lawyers are taught not to represent family and friends so this seems like a potentially slippery slope, another fall waiting to happen.
What follows is an intimate, confronting dissection of the minutiae of her relationship with her husband in front of the court. Yes, they argued, but does arguing mean one party would murder the other? As Sandra says in the film: “Sometimes a couple is kind of a chaos and everybody is lost. Sometimes we fight together and sometimes we fight alone, and sometimes we fight against each other, that happens.” Just because a couple argue it does not mean that one would kill the other.
Throughout Anatomy of a Fall, we are kept guessing did she, didn’t she. And even when we become so convinced one way or the other, we will soon be completely shaken from that position. Ultimately Anatomy of a Fall isn’t about whether Sandra killed her husband Samuel or not, but rather about their relationship and all human relationships. Imagine if your actions today were analysed in detail without the other party being able to confirm or deny the inferences being made. Director Triet explains that she wanted to write a film about “[t]his liberated woman, who was judged for her sexuality, her career, and her motherhood“.
The film isn’t just about the trial, but also the experiences and perspective of their son, Daniel, who finds himself swaying from complete trust in his mother to doubt. Triet says: “ In my previous films, children were present but silent, merely existing in the background. However, in this film, I wanted to incorporate the child’s perspective into the narrative and juxtapose it with Sandra’s, the main character, for a more balanced portrayal of the events.”
Milo Machado-Graner impressed in the role of Daniel and has been nominated for the Male Revelation award at the 2024 César for his portrayal in that role. Triet together with her casting team “spent four months casting visually impaired children, but we couldn’t find the right one. So, we expanded the search to sighted children for another three months before we finally found Milo. Jill Gagé, a casting assistant, discovered him, and he immediately impressed us with his natural talent.”
Similarly, Sandra Hüller has been nominated for Best Actress at the César for her role in this film. We understand why. Her performance was enthralling, complex and unwavering. Swann Arlaud for his role of Vincent has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the César. Antoine Reinartz (120 BPM, Alliance Française French Film Festival 2018 and Oh Mercy! from Alliance Française French Film Festival 2019) who plays the role of Advocate General, has also been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the César If the level of dislike I had for him by the end of the trial is a measure of how realistic his portrayal of the role was then I would say it is a well-deserved nomination.
Anatomy of a Fall also offers an interesting portrayal of a French murder trial, in the inquisitorial system, which has marked differences to the adversarial system to which Australian and most English-speaking audiences are accustomed. With the aim of writing the screenplay as realistic as it could be, Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari consulted with criminal lawyer named Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse. It is particularly strange for Australian audiences to see the Advocate General (Antoine Reinartz) jump from hearing a witness’ answer to asking the accused a question and then going bck to that same witness. All without having the accused moved into the witness box. It is also strange to see that French witnesses are not sat up in a box by the Judge but in the centre of the courtroom delivering their testimony standing up.
Something else that may surprise Australian viewers is the court’s decision to have Marge ((Jehnny Beth) Paris, 13th district, Alliance Française French Film Festival 2022) a court-appointed person regularly visit the chalet in which Sandra and Daniel live. She is there to protect Daniel’s testimony and she forces Sandra to communicate only in French, rather than her usual English, in her presence. We don’t envy Marge being in the uncomfortable role of trying to stop conversations about the trial from happening.
The film is a substantial 2 hours 40, yet Triet has so perfectly constructed Anatomy of a Fall that it doesn’t feel that long at all. For a film, which takes place between the courtroom and the chalet, the screenplay is what manages to have audiences completely captivated with no chance of boredom at the lack of visual variety. We hang on every question and answer in the trial.
Justine Triet has crafted a film with the perfect tension and we highly recommend you see it to understand why it’s been winning awards all around the world. It’s nominated for an impressive 11 awards at the upcoming César awards in France, and we expect it may well win in many of those categories.
For more French cinema check out the below articles:
If you like courtroom dramas, you may also like Saint Omer. Read our review of it here