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Delaney CoyneMarch 06, 2024
Sandra and Daniel hold one another in the aftermath of Samuel’s fall. (Neon via Associated Press)

Note: This piece contains spoilers for “Anatomy of a Fall.”

“Anatomy of a Fall” defies easy categorization: it is a whodunit, but it is not terribly interested in determining who, in fact, did it. It is a French film, but over 40 percent of the dialogue is in English. In what may be this year’s most fascinating snub, it is not nominated for Best International Feature at the Oscars, but it is a serious contender in five other awards categories, including Best Picture.

The film begins as German writer Sandra Voyter (played by Sandra Hüller) is being interviewed about her work in the first-floor living room of her family’s chalet in the French Alps. She charmingly evades the questions of student journalist Zoé Solidor (Camille Rutherford). We are indirectly introduced to Sandra’s husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) as he blares an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” from the attic, effectively ending the interview.

It is not until after we take a walk through the Alps with the couple’s 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) and their dog, Snoop, that we see Samuel for the first time. As Daniel approaches the chalet, he finds his father face down in the blood-stained snow, the braggadocious steelpan drums of “P.I.M.P.” still audible from outside. 

From here, director Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” begins its descent: After Samuel’s autopsy reveals an inconclusive cause of death, the question of whether or not Sandra pushed her husband from the balcony of their chalet to the snowy ground below forces her (and with her, Daniel) into a tizzy of legal trouble. “I did not kill him,” Sandra tells her ex-lover-turned-lawyer, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), as he tries to straighten out her story about the events of that day. “That’s not the point,” Vincent replies. 

Vincent is right. Whether or not Sandra killed Samuel is not the point—it is true both of the unfolding investigation and the film itself, which was co-written by Triet and her husband, Arthur Harari. “Anatomy of a Fall” is a courtroom thriller that interrogates whether it is possible to ever distinguish between truth and perception. The legal proceedings tumble from a dignified search for justice into a chaotic tear through each character’s myopic perceptions of themselves, the couple and the crime. Down and down we go until finally the burden of determining Sandra’s guilt falls with a thud at the viewer’s feet.

Sandra’s situation is morally ambiguous: Is she a victim of a terrible circumstance or a psychopathic liar? 

The French police officers’ investigation of the crime is brief and farcical. Daniel and Sandra both recall (or perhaps invent) new details along the way, but that is not necessarily an indication of guilt, because traumatic memories are often distorted

Throughout the investigation, officials rely on Daniel as the arbiter of truth. Daniel is an intellectually gifted boy, who is extremely nearsighted; he experienced optic nerve damage when he was hit by a motorcyclist at age 4. On the one hand, he is the sole witness. But on the other, he is a child. He has been consumed by shock and grief since finding his father’s body, and he has a vested interest in the outcome of the case. Daniel’s nearsightedness is perhaps a metaphor for Triet’s larger message that a close view of something does not necessarily provide overall clarity.

Even though his mother is cold and less involved in Daniel’s upbringing than his father had been, Daniel loves Sandra. Believing that she is innocent is vital for Daniel to maintain his self-perception and his understanding of his family’s dynamic. Sandra is his only hope for maternal comfort, but as the events unfold, his relationship with Sandra is relegated from mother and son to suspect and witness. He begins to doubt her innocence. It is nebulous territory: When Sandra reassures Daniel that she loves Samuel and would not have killed him, is it witness tampering or a mother comforting her son?

But as we descend from the mountain and into the courtroom where Sandra’s guilt will be determined, we learn that we will not find any easy answers here, either. The rest of the film takes place in a disorganized courtroom trial that is so preposterously French that it borders on parody. We begin with a lengthy argument on the meaning of seduction that consumes the witnesses, lawyers and the judge. And it doesn’t get much more professional from there. 

With a lack of clear evidence pointing to Sandra’s guilt or innocence, the trial deals in speculation, with some hypotheses being more probable than others. The trial becomes less about proving whether or not Sandra pushed her husband off the balcony and instead about determining whether Sandra is the kind of woman who would push her husband off a balcony. As Vincent tells her, “A trial is not about the truth. It’s about who’s the most convincing.”

And Sandra is not entirely convincing, especially for a woman on trial. Her answers are restrained and inconsistent and her case is diminished by her less-than-perfect French. When she slips into English to describe the reality of her marriage more precisely, she only creates distance between herself and those who will judge her fate. But Sandra insists upon her innocence and love for her husband, and thanks to the brilliant acting of Sandra Hüller, you believe her. (Or at least you want to.) As a result, Sandra’s situation is morally ambiguous: Is she a victim of a terrible circumstance or a psychopathic liar? “Anatomy of a Fall” works not despite this lack of clarity, but because of it. 

Far from the dignified, objectivity-seeking legal system portrayed in courtroom dramas like “Twelve Angry Men” or “A Few Good Men,” “Anatomy of a Fall” suggests that a criminal trial is a game that rewards whoever can tell the best story most convincingly. 

The proceedings become an autopsy of Samuel and Sandra’s relationship, as we learn that their marriage was likely a tense negotiation between the partners’ conflicting understandings of themselves and their roles in their relationship.

A close view of something does not necessarily provide overall clarity.

It is only after his death that we come to understand Samuel. Samuel was a teacher who insisted that he could write if only he had a little more time. He was a man of grand ambition who regularly abandoned his projects, “petrified by your own standards,” as Sandra tells him. He was an anxious man who blamed himself for the motorcycle accident that disabled his son. 

In the trial proceedings, Sandra reveals that Samuel might have attempted suicide in the months before, which would provide a likely cause of his death—so long as Sandra is not lying about it. Samuel did tell his therapist he felt an “unbearable imbalance” between the burdens he and his wife each carried in their relationship. 

Their strenuous relationship comes into clearest focus through a recording Samuel took of a fight he had with Sandra the day before he died. Told through a flashback, the fight is the emotional center of “Anatomy of a Fall”; it is the only time any memory is portrayed as objective. The memory is ugly. Samuel is obviously more hurt than Sandra, and she obviously does not care—“I see you very clearly, I just don’t see you as a victim,” she tells him. 

The fight is full of other sharply-written barbs, but the argument itself is circuitous and irrational, taking on the “and another thing while we’re at it” character of real-life fights that movies so often ignore. It is a brutal, personal exchange that eventually devolves into violence, although we only hear the physical struggle. Sandra and Samuel resented one another, that much is clear, but must that mean she murdered him?

It is a captivating sequence, but most chilling is the cut back to the courtroom where the audio is being played: We see Daniel hunched in the audience as he listens to his parents argue about his disability. Machado-Graner’s vulnerable, astute performance transforms Daniel into an avatar for the viewer’s hunger for truth. As he hears his parents’ words on tape, the inscrutable truth weighs on him, calling into question his understanding of his family and his place in it. The uncertainty tears him away from his mother, and as both try to make sense of the trial on their own, the film emphasizes just how much Sandra and Daniel need each other, regardless of the verdict.

In an attempt to determine whether his father might have actually committed suicide, Daniel performs a risky and unscientific experiment on Snoop. This scene draws into sharp focus the destructive nature of Daniel’s desire to know good and evil; there is a chance that the truth could tear apart everything the boy holds dear. 

Daniel later asks his only companion, a court monitor named Marge (Jehnny Beth), if she thinks his mother is guilty. She evades the question, but she does offer advice: “When we lack an element to judge something and the lack is unbearable, all we can do is decide,” she tells him. In a sense, one must invent their belief. “So that means I’m not sure, and I have to pretend that I’m sure?” Daniel asks, incredulous. She responds: “No. No, I’m saying decide. That’s different.”

The film’s refusal to make a clear indication of Sandra’s culpability might be potentially unsatisfying for viewers, but it mirrors the nature of the law itself: A person cannot be declared innocent, only not guilty. 

Sandra’s acquittal is so anti-climactic that it is essentially a non-event. It takes place just after Daniel testifies; it’s possible that the verdict had nothing to do with Sandra and everything to do with the jury’s compassion for the little boy who needs his mother. Over drinks and dinner with Vincent afterward, Sandra says that she thought she would feel relieved because losing was such a terrifying prospect. “But when you win, you expect some kind of reward, and there isn’t any,” she says. “You leave empty-handed.” 

Triet cited the Amanda Knox case as an influence on “Anatomy of a Fall,” and it is never clearer than at the conclusion of the film, as we watch this woman who just won her innocence in a foreign land realize that the speculation does not end after the trial. 

With her carefully placed shots and thoughtful writing, Triet wants the viewers to speculate about Sandra’s innocence. The film’s refusal to make a clear indication of Sandra’s culpability might be potentially unsatisfying for viewers, but it mirrors the nature of the law itself: A person cannot be declared innocent, only not guilty. 

After Sandra ascends the mountain back to her chalet, there is no grand reunion between her and Daniel. Instead, they meet in an uneasy embrace as they begin to build their life together on this new and uncertain ground. Whether either Sandra or Daniel believes in her innocence is unclear, but it is what the two of them and the jury have decided. In the absence of clarity, perception is all that is left. 

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