Review: Anatomy of a Fall — unpicking a fictional cause célèbre

Review: Anatomy of a Fall — unpicking a fictional cause célèbre

Connor Beaton delivers his verdict on French legal drama Anatomy of a Fall.

Now thrust into the spotlight as a rare French nominee for Best Picture at Hollywood’s Academy Awards, courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall scorns an idealised view of criminal trials as an objective process through which truth is brought to light, and instead forces us to consider how narratives woven from selective points of emphasis — and our subjective decisions about who and what to believe — can irreversibly change our perception of reality.

German novelist and mother-of-one Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) finds herself in the dock (though this is perhaps an exaggeration in what appears to be a very modern and comfortable French courtroom) after the death of her French husband Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), whose unexplained fall from their picturesque chalet in the French Alps arouses suspicions.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, we have the excruciatingly voyeuristic experience of watching the intimate details of their relationship be picked apart in front of judges, jurors and journalists, as well as their blind 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). He insists on watching under the supervision of his state-appointed companion, persuading the leading judge through his maturity and insistence that he would see all the details on social media anyway.

Antoine Reinartz projects an enormous presence as a canny prosecutor who paints a damning picture of Sandra’s sociopathic guilt, while her relatively quiet defence encourages us as viewers to mentally protest when he teeters close to the line. At one point, having exhausted banal topics like Sandra’s sexuality and Samuel’s music preferences, even the content of her novels is put to the court in a move which immediately brings to mind the ongoing US debate over the use of rap lyrics as evidence and the obvious implications for freedom of expression.

We can probably forgive, for the sake of coherence, the rather convenient existence of lengthy video and audio recordings of the couple’s home life, which allows us (and the court) to view vignettes made all the more poignant for Hüller’s impressively enigmatic performance; viewers’ attempts to discern sincerity from dishonesty in these uncomfortable exchanges are undoubtedly complicated by Hüller performing many of these scenes, according to an interview, with writer-director Justine Triet refusing to tell her which interpretation was ‘correct’. Graner, the 14-year-old actor playing Daniel, is if anything only more formidable.

The film’s pacing ultimately begins to falter as the end of the trial approaches, its lengthy runtime giving us perhaps too much time to consider the case before its denouement; for a legal drama clearly influenced by the era of Netflix true crime documentaries, there isn’t as much to chew on afterwards as Triet may have hoped. Nonetheless, Anatomy of a Fall is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and emotionally raw legal dramas of recent years.

  • Anatomy of a Fall is now streaming on all major platforms in the UK and Ireland.
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