A forensic fall from grace in Anatomy of a Fall

Director: Justine Triet Starring: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaund, Milo Machado-Graner, Samuel Theis Running Time: 152 minutes

Though inevitable, it comes out of nowhere. In the uninviting ski lodge home of a quarrelling couple, tension cuts through the air more bitter than any cold. Loud music blares, voices raise, everyone wants to flee the hostile space as quickly as possible. And exiting asap and forever is Samuel Maleski, frustrated writer, guilty father, unhappy husband, whose body we first see on the snowy ground, bloody, motionless and heavy with the question; did he fall, did he jump, was he pushed? In Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet doesn’t explore the answers, but everything else that’s shaken loose by the asking.  

Sandra Hüller of Toni Erdmann is Sandra Voyter, widow of Samuel, mother of partially-blind Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) and prime suspect. We never see Sandra arrested, we hardly see her outright accused, but everything that follows from the fall flows naturally from those on the screen and watching it speculating, suspecting and exploring her guilt. Even her lawyer (Swann Arlaund), an old friend and consummate professional, protests her innocence wearing a poker face so intently that it starts to protest too much. The film is ever-steady in not playing its hand, comprehensively covering the investigation, and then Sandra’s trial, with cold, clinical precision. Despite the pulpy premise, and the critique of media frenzies and justice system flaws that come with it, the tone remains steely and steadfast for a clear and well-realised reason; stripping away as much emotion, affect and exaggeration as possible, Triet aims to make the questions the audience asks ring all the louder in their heads. It’s an effective effort, but not without drawbacks. 

With that mannered approach comes intensity – the pressure felt as the camera zooms on the back of Daniel’s head as it fills with stories of his parents’ unhappiness and infidelity is accentuated by a slow zoom and silent soundtrack. Quick flashes of what may have happened play out in Daniel’s mind’s eye, their quick-cut brevity suggesting the way that they’ll play on repeat in the traumatised boy’s head forever. Rarely in the long running time does the film step outside the matter-of-fact approach, running the risk that the audience will drift away from questions rather than fixating on them. The approach works better, as you might expect, for the cold facts of the case and the players within it than it does for the frenzy that surrounds it – whenever the film touches on the media response it’s either with too soft or too heavy a touch that threatens to throw the film off balance. The court of law being inherently a place of performance and speculation means we get those bases covered already – like in real life the media are best kept on the outskirts. 

But if there’s a risk of the viewer drifting, they’re brought back by the performances. Hüller is a more subtle Gone Girl Ben Affleck, slowly rocking charm to smarm to harm and back. This is at its most fascinating in scenes with Daniel, also well played by young Machado-Graner. Sandra’s eagerness to play it cool, to protect her son but also gauge what he’s thinking of her, to avoid impacting him but if needed, influence him, is everything the film is doing in micro and in its most successful. During one damning indictment, Sandra counters that just one little piece of a whole, one argument in a relationship, one emotion in a complex mind, should not be taken as the entire measure, even though it usually definitely does.  

Poor Daniel finds himself wanting, more than anything else, just to understand his father’s death, in lieu of solving it. The places that takes him will beg ever more questions, not of his father’s fall from their house, but the one from grace by his mother, every sentence, act and reaction she now has filtered through the ‘did she/didn’t she’ lens. 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Anatomy of a Fall is currently screening at the Irish Film Institute et al.

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