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Anatomy of a Fall: A Transfixing Marital Autopsy

Image courtesy of Festival de Cannes

When I reviewed Monster back in May, I prematurely picked it as my choice for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was still early in the event, and I hadn’t seen many of the competing films. But, given that I was more impressed by that film than by almost any of the award’s previous winners, I considered it a safe statement. Six months later, I finally get to see the film that beat Monster out after missing it at the London and Cannes festivals. As I said at the time, I need to rewatch Monster to verify if it really is as perfect as it first seemed, but for now I’ll state with high praise that although I still prefer Koreeda’s more audacious and unpredictable film, I am not at all mad Anatomy of a Fall won in its stead. Because Anatomy of a Fall is downright captivating from beginning to end.

The film begins with a fall, obviously. Failed writer Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) is found dead in front of his home by his wife Sandra (Sandra Hüller, also active this year in The Zone of Interest) and Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) his son. Tensions had apparently been high before his demise and Sandra becomes the de facto prime suspect in what starts to look like it could be a case of murder.

As is asked multiple times in Oppenheimer, “How does one justify an entire life?” That is the question that Anatomy of a Fall wrestles with, as much as and along with many others. It is an anatomy not so much of a fall as of a marriage. Throughout proceedings, Sandra is subjected to the most painful, intimate and unflattering details of her marriage being brought out before the public and, more painfully still, before her son, who is forced to reckon with the reality of his parents mundanely dysfunctional marriage, far before anyone would be ready to do so. That mundanity is precisely what is so piercing about Anatomy of a Fall. It’s extremely likely that you will forget to remain impartial in your judgement of Sandra, as the issues brought up between her and Samuel will likely be familiar to anyone who has been in a long term relationship, or who is a child of divorce.

Eventually, we are forced to reckon with the nature of innocence and guilt. Can they defined by culpability, intent, or negligence? As her lawyer (Swann Arlaud) tells Sandra, “[whether she murdered her husband] is not the point”, and he’s right, but not in the sense he means.
Like many a classic courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Fall will disappoint those who demand resolution or the unambiguous attribution of guilt. I think it’s fairly obvious what is supposed to have happened by the end, but there is a window open to other possibilities. Doubt is unkillable, if you will, and it must be killed where a mother and child is concerned. Even I, one who adores ambiguity, would’ve appreciated it if this note were expressed a little more explicitly in the film’s final moments. I’ve heard it said that the film goes on too long in its final act. I was therefore very surprised how quickly it wraps up. I could’ve done with more personally, and it’s rare I come out of a two and a half hour long movie thinking “I could’ve borne another twenty minutes”.

That’s mostly just because this movie is so damn gripping. This is no stuffy French drama. No no no. You get so absorbed by it. It’s electrifying and yet so grown up. There’s virtually no sense of melodrama or exaggeration or manipulation, just an exceedingly well told story about an adult relationship, about our self worth, how we’re perceived and who we really are. We don’t have to be a murderer not to be a good person. And is a not good person a bad one, or just a person? Sandra is very sympathetic, but she’s not nice exactly. She’s human, and the magic of Huller’s performance is that she makes her at once extremely guilty and utterly innocent, and not just in the sense that one person could watch the film and come away with completely convinced that she did it and another be equally certain that she did. She’s inscrutable with her thoughts and yet totally transparent in her emotions. It’s one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen all year, as is the astonishing performance of Machado-Graner as her son Daniel, whose partial sightedness is one of those exhilaratingly on the nose metaphors that this film handles so gracefully.

I could honestly talk forever about how brilliantly Justine Trier directed this film. It’s the first of her works I’ve watched, and I need to see more immediately. She has such a skillful hand at creating set pieces that don’t feel like set pieces and pulling off audacious moves as if they’re the most natural and obvious things to do, with the camera and the editing. They’re all wielded with such unerring instinctual skill to tell her story. There’s no cheap shocks and nothing is thrown in for stylistic affect.  She knows she and co-writer (and husband) Arthur Harari have written something really special and profoundly articulate and everything she does is to serve the fruition of that vision. In other words, she’s an auteur.

It gets said that people throw the word “masterpiece” around too much. I admit, I am one of those people. I get excited when I discover something that really thrills me and who’s to tell me I’m exaggerating. The consensus is on my side this time. Anatomy of a Fall is a masterpiece. It says something real and profound, and it does so in an original and utterly absorbing way. I was enraptured from start to finish, given so much to reflect on the whole time the film was playing and long afterwards. That’s a masterpiece. It’s devastating when you think about the questions it invites its viewer to ask of themselves, but it’s redemptive and restorative power lies in the depths of its compassion and in just how compelling it reminds you a film can be.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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