ANATOMY OF A FALL asks uncomfortable questions about the nature of truth. How the reality that each of us inhabits that may be diametrically different from the one inhabited by the people closest to us. Such is the nature of perception, and the unconscious biases that we all carry that persistently assert themselves despite our best efforts at objectivity. In fact, as Justine Triet’s film opines, objectivity as a concept might just be another form of subjectivity.
Triet uses the courtroom as her dialectical trope, with the proceedings attempting to determine just how Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) came to meet his death after a fall from his chalet near Grenoble. He was alone in the house with his wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) when it happened, but the body was discovered in the snow by their 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) and his dog, Snoop, and his shouting for help brought Sandra from the room in which she was napping. The only solid fact is a lifeless body in the blood-stained snow. The coroner rules the cause of death trauma to the head, but how it occurred as inconclusive. The blood spatters, which floor Samuel was on when he fell, and, of course, the larger question of what happened are all subject to the sometimes contradictory interpretation of the expert witnesses who testify.
Sandra proclaims her innocence, but as the investigation and trial proceed, troubling aspects of her marriage come to light that don’t necessarily prove she pushed him, but that do build a circumstantial case for a motive. What is telling is how these aspects land on the audience, forcing us to question our own unconscious biases about gender and power in a relationship that has endured despite a slew of troubles.
Certainly, the interpretation of a couple’s relationship, whether it could lead to a homicidal breaking point or not, is itself put on trial, creating a parallel track back at home between Sandra and Daniel, who was the first on the scene, and whose impaired vision serves as a salient metaphor for a quest for ultimate truth. It also questions the responsibility each partner has to one another in familial relationships, and how the power dynamic colors the perception of microagressions, intentional or not, real or not. A recording of the couple arguing played during the trial makes those points brilliantly in a précis of all that has come before as it neatly demonstrates the perils of assumptions even when the words, and sounds, themselves are indisputable. No less brilliant is the introduction we have to the mysterious dynamics of this relationship, as Sandra is being interviewed by a doctoral student (Camille Rutherford) about her books, which themselves contemplate the nature of fiction versus reality. Music begins to play. Loudly. It grows in intensity as Sandra smiles wanly, reminding the student that she had suggested they meet in town. She doesn’t, though, ask Samuel to turn the music down, instead, pouring another glass of wine. Eventually they give up, and as the student leaves, she sees Daniel and Snoop exiting the house to escape noise. A point that will become pivotal later, as will the interpretation of the song Samuel chooses to play.
The film unfolds with the idiom of a procedural, but with a pervasive undercurrent of suspense. Hüller gives a superbly nuanced performance that embraces the unrelenting uncertainty with which we are presented and, in the process, becomes the perfect embodiment of Schrödinger’s cat. She refuses to make it easy to unravel what happened, nor to interpret her behavior with the defense attorney (Swann Arlaud) who has been smitten with her for many years, nor to elicit our sympathy as that circumstantial evidence mounts, as she is, with an increasing sense of inevitably, indicted. She is a cipher, perhaps even to herself.
ANATOMY OF A FALL is uncompromising in being true to its central thesis, a choice that will frustrate some, but whose violation be beneath the integrity of that thesis. Prepare to be challenged, and to be made better for it.