French director Justine Triet returns to the Cannes competition with a cerebral smash that might finally bring the Best Actress award that its star, Sandra Hüller, was cruelly denied in 2016 when Maren Ade’s festival hit Toni Erdmann lost out in every category. That film wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and the formidably forensic Anatomy of a Fall might not be either, but Hüller’s screen magnetism cannot be denied. Between this and her role as “Queen of Auschwitz” in Jonathan Glazer’s equally brilliant The Zone of Interest, Hüller has this Cannes in the palm of her hand. Whether she will also get a Palme in her hand is up to the jury.
The French like a good courtroom drama and they do them well, as Alice Diop’s Saint Omer proved last year. Triet’s film is very much in that mold, a ferociously intelligent and deceptively playful drama that uses genre as a Trojan horse through which to tell the story of a normal family’s sudden implosion.
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The setting is a chalet in the snowy French Alps, where Sandra, a well-known German writer, lives with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis). Sandra is being interviewed by a young PhD student, who has lots of questions about Sandra’s fiction, but the meeting is disrupted when Samuel, upstairs and unseen, starts blasting out a cover version of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P and puts it on repeat. The noise is too much for the student, and the pair agree to reconvene later. As she leaves, the girl passes the couple’s young, partially sighted son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who is out for a walk with his dog Snoop.
All of these details, seemingly trivial at the time, come back later in the plot, for reasons about to become clear: returning from his walk, Daniel finds the lifeless body of his father, who has fallen from the attic window. Autopsy reports are inconclusive, and, because the body shows signs of severe head trauma, police treat the death as suspicious. To defend herself, Sandra hires a lawyer, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), who also happens to be an old friend, although their connection is never discussed. Vincent impresses upon Sandra the fact that she is now under investigation and that, with the best will in the world, her story doesn’t stack up. “I didn’t kill him,” she insists. “That’s not the point,” says Vincent.
Were this a simple whodunit, Triet’s film would be just as enjoyable, if a bit overlong, but the director’s masterstroke is to subvert the pleasures of genre convention to explore issues of schadenfreude and plain morbid human curiosity (it makes especially interesting viewing after the many conversations about the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard court case that accompanied the screening of Cannes opener Jeanne du Barry last week). Sandra loudly proclaims her innocence, but evidence begins piling up against her, including the revelation of a secret recording made by Samuel without her knowledge. This scene, shown in flashback, is the centerpiece of the film and is nothing short of magnificent: the mousey Sandra is revealed to have a temper, and a simple domestic tiff quickly spirals into ugly, vituperative violence.
Cross-examined in court by a super-sharp-minded prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz), Sandra finds all her dirty laundry being aired: she is bisexual, had been unfaithful, and may have plagiarized whole chunks of her late husband’s unfinished novel. The trial plays out almost like a script meeting, fleshing out plot points and motivations, deconstructing its twists and turns while we’re actually watching them unfold. The killer blow appears to come when the contents of Sandra’s novels are used against her, including a character who fantasizes about murdering her husband and a press quote from years ago in which Sandra told a journalist, “My job is to cover the tracks so that fiction can destroy reality.”
Is that what’s happening here? Has Sandra muddied the waters sufficiently to get away with murder, since there is insufficient proof either way? Thankfully, Anatomy of a Fall is not so formally austere as to leave you unfulfilled – there definitely is a satisfying resolution here. At the same time, it is quite brilliantly unsatisfying, in a subtle and slyly Hitchcockian way that interrogates the whole notion of “satisfaction” in the context of a murder trial. And at its heart is Hüller’s performance, a haunting and emotional tour de force that stays long in the mind and puts her right up there in the top tier of European talent.
Title: Anatomy of a Fall
Section: Cannes (Competition)
Director: Justine Triet
Screenwriter: Justine Triet, Arthur Harari
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Samuel Theis
Running time: 2 hr 31 min
Sales agent: MK2
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