If a man falls from the balcony of his house and no one sees it, is his wife going down for it? After all, the circumstances of most marriages would look pretty damning when held up in court as circumstantial. Had a fiery row? Suspicious. Harbouring a petty (or not so petty) grudge? Looks like a motive.
An acceptance that marriages – relationships in general – can be hard and ugly is baked into French filmmaker Justine Triet’s knotty, whipsmart and elegantly constructed film. Full of gradually unpeeled complexities, Anatomy of a Fall is a family drama that wears the clothes of a crime procedural – a whodunit where marriage itself feels like a prime suspect.
The falling man here is writer Samuel (Samuel Theis), the husband of German novelist Sandra (Sandra Hüller). He plunges, off-screen, from the balcony of their Alpine chalet home and dies in the snow below. Their young, partially sighted son, Daniel (newcomer Milo Machado Graner), is walking the family’s border collie, Snoop, at the time, stumbling on dad’s body when he returns.
But did Sandra push him or was it suicide? As the police reconstruct the event, Sandra nervily consults with her lawyer (Swann Arlaud), a man with whom she has a (possibly romantic) past, and forensic ‘splatter experts’ get deep into 3D imagery of falling blood droplets, it starts to look grim for her. Triet doesn’t show the fall but we do see its prelude, when an unseen Samuel drowns out Sandra’s attempts to flirt with a female student by blasting out a steel band version of 50 Cent’s ‘P.I.M.P.’. A courtroom, and a bulldog prosecutor, await.
The idea of a bisexual novelist with possibly murderous tendencies sounds pulpy (and pretty much describes Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct). Sandra, though, is no femme fatale. She’s a remarkable creation by Triet and her co-writer/husband Arthur Harari: an unapologetically tough, buttoned-up woman whose froideur masks a deep love for her family. Of course, it’ll be the frostiness that the jury – including us – will focus on.
It’s a whodunit where marriage itself feels like a prime suspect
So good in the role of comically spiralling daughter in Toni Erdmann, Hüller is sublime again here, while Graner carries some guttural scenes with skill as Daniel gets drawn into the trial. Heck, even the dog acting is on point.
It’s not an easy watch. One fight between Sandra and Samuel rivals Marriage Story’s famous stand-up row for wall-smashing, crockery-lobbing intensity, as the couple clash over her ‘plundering’ (or otherwise) of his story idea and his habit of secretly recording their conversations to use in his writing. Chewy ideas about privacy and intellectual property only add another satisfying layer to the film.
Triet sugars all that bitterness with some much-needed laughs. Jarring courtroom scenes are lightened by Saadia Bentaieb’s unusually expressive judge, while one especially tense moment is broken by what’s basically the Comic Sans of crash zooms.
A thriller of real psychological and emotional depth, Triet’s film is a treat. Watch it with a partner and argue about it afterwards.
In US theaters Oct 13 and UK cinemas Nov 10.