Anatomy of a Fall review – Sandra Hüller compels as an author accused of her husband’s murder
There’s a bracing and chilly high-mindedness about Justine Triet’s psychothriller, about a suspicious death whose only reliable witness happens to be blind
Ihave been agnostic about Justine Triet’s work in the past, but her courtroom drama murder mystery in this year’s Cannes competition, with its ambiguous title and ambiguous dénouement, is very intriguing. It reminded me at various stages of Billy Wilder’s Agatha Christie adaptation Witness for the Prosecution or Steven Bochco’s underrated, under-remembered 90s TV drama Murder One.
Sandra Hüller plays Sandra, a successful and fashionable author (that staple figure of French cinema), German by birth, but now living in a handsome chalet in the French Alps with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), a former academic and would-be author himself, who has now hit a career slump and creative block and is currently hoping to salvage the family finances by fixing up the chalet as an Airbnb. It is while he is grumpily sawing and hammering upstairs, with the music on too loud, that Sandra attempts to give an interview, which simply has to be abandoned because of the noise. Sandra wearily attempts to take a nap, while the couple’s son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) takes their dog Snoop for a walk.
But when he returns, his dad’s corpse is lying on the snow outside the chalet with a brutal wound on his head. Did he fall from the top window? Did his head hit something on the way down? Or did someone hit him? Poor Daniel is an unreliable witness because he is blind, the result of an accident which Sandra always blamed on Samuel, who was supposed to be looking after him at the time, and which caused Samuel to spiral into depressive anger; he hated Sandra for her affairs and for plagiarising what she felt was an idea of his — Sandra perhaps still blamed him for their son’s condition. It isn’t long before the cops have snapped the cuffs on Sandra and charged her with murder. She employs as her lawyer an old friend (Swann Arlaud) who may in love with her. Yet her fate may still lie in the hands of her blind son who saw nothing at all, yet might still remember something convenient at any moment.
Sandra Hüller’s calm directness as an actor is what gives the film its texture, substance and emotional force. She anchors it in a kind of accessible reality: we naturally sympathise with her, and yet Triet shows us that she is capable of transparent lies, lies which are almost credible because Hüller is such a plausible personality. The men that surround her seem to be over-emotional, more emotional than her — odd, as she is the one facing a prison sentence.
And as the film pursues its own forensic style of drama: we see the body itself examined, and the event itself bizarrely reconstructed by the defence, with a dummy dropped from the window, to determine if the corpse’s trajectory and the resulting blood splatters incriminate Sandra or not. The film does not signpost the traditional twists and turns and dramatic reversals, but keeps a cool distance, letting us wonder if Sandra is guilty or not, and we are kept guessing until the end. It’s a lowkey, almost downbeat drama, but with something invigoratingly cerebral.