Just as is often the case in life, the truth is not so easily found in Justine Triet's piercing, Palme d'Or-winning drama Anatomy of a Fall. There are a whole lot of potential truths that often run counter to each other and twist themselves up throughout what some have called a crime thriller when it is much more than that. In a basic sense, it is a film about a woman named Sandra Voyter who is arrested and put on trial in France over the suspicion of murdering her husband who "fell" to his death at their remote snowy home. Played by an expertly poised Sandra Hüller (who is having a banner year between this and the upcoming The Zone of Interest, which has also been making the festival rounds), Sandra is an acclaimed writer, a mother to her 11-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), and now one of the most scrutinized people in the world.
This is both what the entire experience of the film is literally about and also only a fraction of what Triet has on her mind. Much in the way Alice Diop's stunning 2022 film Saint Omer took us inside a courtroom where the results of the trial are ultimately less important than what the process reveals about the woman currently at the center of it, Anatomy of a Fall is about the steady disintegration of a marriage that has culminated in this moment. However, where the two differ is that Diop showed a great deal more restraint and patience in her film. This is not entirely a dig against Triet, as her film is more about playing around with the familiar conventions of the genre, but it remains the lesser of the two in terms of whether it is as successful in what it sets out to do. Where it remains unimpeachable is in its central leading performance.
The world was first introduced to Hüller via her 2016 feature debut — the disquieting yet quietly riveting slow-motion horror film, Requiem. In many regards, Anatomy of a Fall feels like it could play as a companion piece to that film in how it attempts to get into the guts of a familiar genre in order to turn it inside out. Both are also similarly shaky at some key moments as they often hold us at a distance. Such a distance is not an accident in either, but this is especially true in Anatomy of a Fall, as we are meant to feel kept in the dark along with young Daniel, who steadily begins to emerge as the protagonist. It is one of many risky yet daring gambles Triet manages to pull off even when moments building to it buckle under the pressure.
In the eye of the tumultuous legal storm, not only does Hüller give another formidable performance that looks us dead in the eyes, but she excavates resonances from quieter moments where her character's protective mask begins to ever so slightly slip. While the particulars of French courtrooms remain wildly chaotic — with Swann Arlaud's measured defense attorney and Antoine Reinartz's snarky prosecutor each giving pointedly grandiose performances — it is all about Sandra. The way Triet lets the camera linger on Hüller allows viewers to feel the full scope of her multifaceted performance. In one central flashback, she must do a lot all at once as she draws us right up to a possible truth before the film abruptly yanks it away once more. It is part of a constant push and pull that is all about creating an accelerating sense of free fall.
This extends to the ending, which is where the film strikes its most effective yet elusive emotional notes. In particular, there is a simple yet devastating scene between mother and son that complicates everything we have experienced up to that point. Rather than providing closure, it bursts open a multitude of possibilities that bring into focus how even the most robust of trials (or, yes, even films) can barely scratch the surface of anything resembling the full truth.
Sometimes, the most revealing questions are the ones that go unanswered. Even when Anatomy of a Fall wraps you up in a fraught final embrace, it is Sandra herself who may still be falling. ♦ANATOMY OF A FALL