Movie Review: Anatomy of a Fall

Screened at El Gouna Film Festival 2023

One-liner: A nuanced lead performance elevates this elegant, well-acted, intricately written and powerful courtroom drama.

Anatomy of a Fall is a suspenseful and emotionally taut French courtroom drama from Justine Triet. The film traces the story of a writer who’s suspected of murder after her husband is found with a head injury that could have been inflicted by a fall or a weapon.

Set in France, a mountainside chalet becomes the site of an investigation into whether the man’s death was an accident or incident. After an uneasy author interview is cut short, it’s young partially-sighted Daniel who returns home to find his father’s body lying motionless in the snow. A “suspicious death”, Sandra becomes the prime suspect as inconclusive evidence leads the trial to become about her complicated marriage with Samuel. Caught in the middle, Daniel and Sandra’s relationship stretches to breaking point as the 11-year-old bears witness to a painful dissection of his home life and becomes a key proponent.

Anatomy of a Fall starts with a jolt, thrusting viewers into the heat of the moment as an interview takes place under duress. Steel drum music fills the air as strange tensions mount around the inaction of Sandra who drinks wine with perceived nonchalance. Under the surface, you can sense the futility and trauma bubbling away as the interview comes to an abrupt halt. A prelude to tragedy, this interaction informs the situational dynamic as Daniel’s wilderness walk with his dog leads to a crushing discovery.

An intense opening, Anatomy of a Fall eventually finds its stride as the cold investigation gets underway. From implication to seeking legal counsel, the crime drama thriller builds its case as a peer, mother and wife is put on trial. Unable to determine the root cause of the death, it becomes an exercise in peeling away layers of story to reveal character in an attempt to understand motive. A smart see-sawing legal drama, the script from Justine Triet and Arthur Harari deftly draws out the nuances of the situation. While a bit slow-moving at first, the minutiae and slow-boiling tension escalates to a point of becoming intellectually engaged and emotionally involved.

Much of this magnetism is derived from the poise of the cast who are concerned and solemn in their quest for answers. Anatomy of a Fall stars Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner and Samuel Theis. Written for Hüller, it serves as a wonderful showcase for the talented actor whose immersive performance is full of nuance and humanity. Nurturing the fragility of her emotional state and pleading innocence, it’s difficult not to side with her as new bits of evidence seek to disrupt the purity of this character portrait. Supported by a solid ensemble, its a team effort with a key turn from Theis and a soulful performance from Machado Graner.

anatomy of a fall

“I’ve got a killer idea for my next book.”

While fairly simple at a glance, Anatomy of a Fall runs deep… essentially getting permission to put a dysfunctional marriage under the microscope. Using mystery to swathe the movie in far-reaching curiousities, the courtroom is where the real arm wrestle happens. Feeling the bias of a judge and a nitpicking prosecutor, the tides turn as Sandra finds her defence doing everything in their power to shutdown a vitriolic barrage of questions. While knowingly taking liberties with poetic license, it does seem strange that a court would allow an 11-year-old to be present for every moment of the proceeding.

A layered legal drama, Anatomy of a Fall has elegance, compelled by a silky and understated cinematography. Lacing scenes together with finesse, there’s rarely a distracting moment, enabling audiences to sink into the detail. A thought-provoking criminal procedural, it never loses sight of its authenticity and humanity. A brilliant short film dialogue is ushered in after leveraging Samuel’s ghostly presence to good effect. From great insight to fine storytelling, Anatomy of a Fall operates with nuance and maintains an ambiguous tightrope act atmosphere.

The film’s investigation is intricate but so are the cultural dynamics as Sandra’s German heritage, French legal district and the common ground of English factor into the language. A fascinating peek at a French courtroom setting, the film uses flashbacks to illustrate various theories. From difficult expert witnesses to mounting tension around Sandra’s integrity and plea, Triet finds a good balance. While the film runs a bit long and ends on an anti-climax, it does mirror the character’s state of mind and echoes her sentiment. Taking a while to get going, this is ultimately a well-acted, adept, immersive and powerful chronicle elevated by Hüller’s great nuance and restraint. Somewhat overlong, it’s a triumph for a legal drama to entertain and transport well over 2 hours.

The bottom line: Engaging