You often hear some version of the statement “well, it doesn’t actually matter if the protagonist did it or not” when discussing a legal procedural. Most of the time, it’s an exaggeration. Occasionally, however, the argument is apt. In the case of Anatomy of a Fall, it’s a rare occasion where it truly is. Watching this movie play out, whatever side of the case you fall on, it’s an equally enrapturing experience. Playing here at the Toronto International Film Festival after wowing other festivals this year, it truly is tremendous filmmaking.
Anatomy of a Fall engrosses you from start to finish. Is it perhaps a bit longer of a film than it needs to be? Maybe so, though I dare you to figure out where you’d make any trims. The length allows the courtroom sequences to breathe and feel more realistic. Plus, a centerpiece argument scene gets to be the showstopper and showcase that it really is meant to be. By the time the flick wraps up, your heart may well be racing.
When we meet German author Sandra (Sandra Hüller), she’s being interviewed by a graduate student (Camille Rutherford) at the French chalet she lives out with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their pre-teen son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who is visually impaired from an early childhood accident. Samuel is upstairs playing music, disturbing the interview, eventually causing it to be postponed. The student leaves, Sandra goes up to speak with Samuel, and Daniel takes their dog Snoop out for a walk. When he returns, Samuel’s body is in the snow, having hit his head and fallen from the house. The medical examiner finds inconclusive results about murder or suicide, so suspicion immediately falls to Sandra, who lacks a rock-solid alibi. Bringing on her lawyer friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud), she’s not immediately concerned. He seems to be, since no one can be sure is Samuel jumped or was pushed. Soon, it becomes clear that it will be up to a jury in the end.
Indicted for the murder of her husband, Sandra is unprepared for what the trial will be like. Not only is the prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz) determined to shake her and put her behind bars, the judge (Anne Rotger) doesn’t seem inclined to stop him. Moreover, as more revelations about Sandra and Samuel’s relationship comes out in court, Daniel is there to witness it. When it comes down to testimony from him, he appears genuinely conflicted. How much does he know? Plus, what will he do with the information?
Sandra Hüller gives one of the year’s best performances here. Hüller makes her character complex and somewhat unknowable, which adds even more mystery to the proceedings. Even as the credits roll, you’re wondering about her and if justice was served or not. That’s not really the point, but she makes the portrait of this woman nothing less than enrapturing. Swann Arlaud is very low-key and a figure of competence, while Samuel Theis is riveting during the big argument sequence. As for Milo Machado Graner, it’s one of the better child performances of the year, as the film asks a lot of him, especially late in the game. In addition to the aforementioned Antoine Reinartz, Anne Rotger, and Camille Rutherford, the cast includes Saadia Bentaïeb, Jehnny Beth, Sophie Fillières, and more.
Filmmaker Justine Triet only has one misstep here, otherwise turning in some terrific filmmaking. Along with co-writer Arthur Harari, Triet tiptoes along the lines of a third act decision that would have completely lost me. It’s not quite a misdirect, but the start of something more complex, so it works out, but it’s touch and go for a moment. Other than that, the script is sharp, while Triet’s direction shines, especially in the domestic scenes. The film is as successful at examining a complicated relationship as it is in depicting courtroom drama.
Anatomy of a Fall won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for a reason. The movie is great, plain and simple. It’s the first thing I’ve seen on the ground here in Toronto and it kicks things off on a strong note. Let all of TIFF be this good. If only, right?