Directed By Justine Triet
Starring – Sandra Huller, Swann Arlaud, Antoine Reinartz
The Plot – The story begins when Samuel (Samuel Theis) is found dead in the snow outside the isolated chalet where he lived with his wife Sandra (Huller), a German writer, and their partially-sighted 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). An investigation leads to a conclusion of “suspicious death”: it’s impossible to know for sure whether he took his own life or was killed. Sandra is indicted, and we follow her trial which pulls the couple’s relationship apart. Daniel is caught in the middle: between the trial and their home life, doubts take their toll on the mother-son relationship.
Rated R for some adult language, sexual references and violent images
Everyone understands and accepts the imperfections of the criminal justice system, and that psychological duress is exuberrated effortlessly within Triet’s crucial direction. Not only does Justine effectively render a high stakes and riveting mystery in the confines of this wife on trial for possibly murdering her husband, while also sifting through a barrage of meaningful themes and precise observations, like media manipulation and preconceived spousal prejudices, that feed into environmental perceptions so forcefully. Triet does this by functioning her film as a courtroom drama, but of a much smarter variety. The restrain in terms of what to show or what not to show evaded a cliche’d and manipulative sense of storytelling, and considering we know nothing about this couple before the death and corresponding trial take shape, its criminal investigation becomes the most integral part of the experience, for how it conveys information and exposition about the couple through a means of honest and realistic struggles between them. This is brilliant not only because it leaves every option immediately possible for the audience who are initially interpreting matters, but also because we’re experiencing the vital information in the same manner as the jurors themselves, creating this immersive situation that rides the roller-coaster of so many impactful twists and devastating turns. Like real life court cases, there is a verdict by the end of the film, but satisfaction among justice is debatable at best, with a refreshingly responsible take in the ambiguity of the night in question that evades both conveniences and conventionalism for a resolution that is loose in every bit of the term’s meaning. Beyond three-dimensional storytelling, I also loved the stylistic impulses of the production, with a beautifully blustery element of cinematography from Simon Beaufils inscribing a wandering eye surveillance to the many environments and atmospheres that he casually studies. What I find so alluring about his methods is that the camera will often follow and study characters who aren’t even the primary focus of the scene or sequence that they adorn, creating a much-needed depiction for secondary responses and how they interpret such revealing information that gives them a responsible presence among scenes that conventionally ignore that these type of characters. The lighting of internal scenes is also very moody and atmospheric, while consistently playing into the moral ambiguity of the trial. This element works terrifically with some imperfect piano instrumentals by the couple’s son, and the way it’s reincorporated randomly back into the confines of future sequences inscribes a chilling reminder to the stakes that constantly hang overhead in the fate of this mother’s trial, all the while playing feverishly towards her fraying stability. For her and the extensive collection of this ensemble, the performances are exceptional, especially from Sandra Huller, who conjures an Oscar worthy performance full of so many shining moments and captivating appeal. What I appreciate about her approach to character is that like the surrounding mystery that haunts her character, she leaves just enough unsettling emphasis in the way she looks at characters, or even responds to certain accusations, that could feed either way into audience interpretation. It also gives me much delight to actually commend a child performance for a change, as 13-year-old Milo Machado Graner carries so much of the dramatic tension on his back during the film’s tensely unsettling climax. While it’s clear that Triet spent an abundance of time with the youthful actor to get his performance just right, Milo’s emotional impulses feel years ahead of his limited on-screen experience, attaining all of the empathy that a child on the brink of losing both of his parents could properly muster. Finally, while the film spends a majority of its run time inside of the courtroom, I found the desired location of this cabin in the snowy slopes of France to inscribe such a coldly chilling means of isolation for the story’s setting. Because this is where the film immediately begins, we get an immediate sense of disconnect between this trio of family underneath one roof that, when combined with a strange but meaningful use of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P”, feeds into an element of awkwardness that unravels in death, getting the film off to the impactful kind of introduction that it needs to immediately hook its audience into the duration of a nearly two-and-a-half hour engagement.
Very little bothered me about Triet’s direction, but if I had to gripe about one unflattering element, it would certainly be the run time, which at 146 minutes doesn’t always make the most of its allowance. To be fair, the depth of the story warrants every bit of extensive engagement, with observations and social commentary that adds a three-dimensional element to the trial before us, but the prolonging of certain scenes that could’ve easily been summarized in a couple of minutes did little to relive the stress from some occasionally strained pacing, in turn leaving this a bit of a difficult watch for someone who, unlike me, won’t be completely enthralled in every bit of detail to this highly complex court case. This is felt the loudest during the late moments of the film’s second act, and while I can say that I was never bored or uninvested to the dimensions of the movie’s ever-shifting conflict, I can say that it occasionally stalls scenes of simplistic necessity.
“Anatomy of a Fall” is a smart and spectacularly crafted showcase for Justine Triet, who taps tenderly into the preconceived prejudices of courtroom addicts everywhere by conjuring a high stakes mystery with no shortage of eye-opening reveals amid its power struggles. With perfection among performances, as well as creative insight among its technical components, this courtroom drama refuses to take the conventional route, and is rewarded remarkably with one of the year’s best and most moving drama’s.
My Grade: 9/10 or A