Anatomy of a Fall review: Critic’s fave brings coutroom suspense back to the big screen

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Sandra Hüller as Sandra, with Swann Arlaud as her lawyer, in Anatomy of a Fall.
Sandra Hüller as Sandra, with Swann Arlaud as her lawyer, in Anatomy of a Fall. Credit: Supplied/TheWest

The winner of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, Anatomy of a Fall is well and truly in the cultural conversation now that it’s been nominated for five Oscars.

There is deep love for Anatomy of a Fall, a tightly crafted courtroom drama about a successful writer who is accused of murder when her husband is found dead in front their isolated chalet in the French Alps. Did he fall from the balcony above or was he pushed?

It’s a universal, appealing premise but it’s also the kind of the story that could be told in an episode of Law & Order. So, what’s the big deal?

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What Anatomy of a Fall does that elevates it far above procedural TV is the many levels it’s operating at, some of which you don’t immediately see until you sit with it later. And you will sit with it. It’s a film that prompts questions, discussions and reflections.

The opposing forces in the courtroom – the prosecutor and the defence – all want to persuade the jury of their answer to “did she do it?” but it’s more complicated than that.

Whether Sandra (Sandra Huller) did the final act (the blow and the push) could only be discovered by pulling apart the vicissitudes of her marriage to Daniel (Milo Machado). In this pursuit, everything that is revealed in that courtroom is a construction, a story.

The prosecutor’s construction paints Sandra as a cold woman who killed her husband, and had even written about those desires in her novels.

The defence’s construction paints Sandra as a talented writer contending with a depressed husband who resented her success, and whose mental volatility put strains on their family after an accident which rendered their young son (Samuel Theis) blind.

Anatomy of a Fall has been nominated for five Oscars.
Anatomy of a Fall has been nominated for five Oscars. Credit: supplied

Both arguments are convincing and who you believe and when is almost like a litmus test for the audience. Although this is a fluid state with the rhythm of the verbal sparring going back and forth like a tennis match. The tempo of the camera work is perfectly calibrated and it toys with audience loyalties.

Huller, nominated for her role by the Oscars, BAFTAs and Cesars, is extraordinary as Sandra. It’s an unsentimental performance but one which courses with righteous fury while the character attempts to keep her emotions restrained because everyone knows how an angry woman is perceived, especially when the stakes are so high.

The centrepiece of the case is a secret recording made by Daniel the day before his death. The audio reveals a blazing row between the couple which ended in an audible, violent scuffle. Director Justine Triet (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur Harari) stages the flashback in a way that emphasises that it’s impossible to know what really happened if you weren’t there.

In the absence of facts, all you have is a construction. It’s who you choose to believe and why – and the why parses the murkiness of a relationship breakdown including questions of whether there is ever equality between partners or is that something we tell ourselves?

The way we see the film – as a French film, co-written and directed by a woman, taking on Hollywood – is a constructed story. The way the movie is sold through its trailer – as an intense crime thriller – is a constructed story. Its awards season success as a measure of its quality is a constructed story.

Anatomy of a Fall asks its audience to think about how we think about things, and how we choose what we believe. It’s interested in the form of storytelling as much as it is interested in telling a story.

The title of the film promises a forensic investigation of an incident. But what is it really interrogating? The death or the social and cultural reaction to it?

Rating: 4/5

Anatomy of a Fall is in cinemas now

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