The Movie Waffler New to VOD - ANATOMY OF A FALL | The Movie Waffler


A German writer stands trial for the murder of her French husband.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Justine Triet

Starring: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaïeb, Camille Rutherford

Anatomy of a Fall poster

Justine Triet opens her courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall with some steel band instrumental music and closes it with a Chopin piece. Nothing notable about that you might think, but the steel band number is a cover of rapper 50 Cent's misogynistic fantasy PIMP, and the Chopin piece will resonate with Serge Gainsbourg fans as the tune from Jane B, in which the songwriter imagines the murder of his lover, Jane Birkin, possibly by his own hands. These musical choices tie into an idea later raised in the courtroom, that of whether an artist can be separated from their art. Should we view the likes of 50 Cent and Gainsbourg with suspicion, or are they simply acting out fantasies within their work? If either of the two had ever found themselves accused of killing a woman, no doubt the prosecution would have attempted to use their words against them.

In Anatomy of a Fall, Sandra Hüller, of Toni Erdmann fame, plays Sandra Voyter, a German author whose books are known for being based on personal experience and reflecting personal thoughts. One of her books features a narrator fantasising about how she might kill her husband, a passage seized upon by the prosecution when she goes to trial accused of killing her own husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis).

Anatomy of a Fall review

Samuel's body is discovered in the snow outside their home in Grenoble (a city which on the evidence of this, Saturn Bowling and The Night of the 12th must have a homicide rate to rival Cabot Cove) by the couple's blind son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner). It seems that he fell from a second-storey window, and the subsequent trial asks its jury to decide whether he jumped or was pushed by Sandra. An autopsy having discovered he received a blow to the head before hitting the ground raises the question of whether he hit his head on the roof of a tool shed while falling, or if he was struck by Sandra before she pushed him out the window.

Unlike a Hitchcock movie or an episode of Columbo, the film doesn't establish Sandra's guilt. Nor is it a whodunit. There's never any suggestion that any third party might have been involved in Samuel's death. His demise could only have come at his own hands or those of his wife.

Anatomy of a Fall departs from standard courtroom thrillers in that it's not particularly concerned with whether Sandra is guilty or not, but rather whether she'll be found guilty or innocent of the crime. By refusing to reveal Sandra's guilt, the film is an important reminder that no matter how much gossip we might ingest or how many courtroom transcripts we might pore over, we can never know the truth of a relationship between two people. Everyone seems to have an opinion on Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, on Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, but none of us really know anything about these people.

Anatomy of a Fall review

Triet's film, co-written with her own romantic partner Arthur Harari (awkward or what?), is a brutal take on the flaws of the legal system. It's made clear throughout that neither the defence nor the prosecution care whether Sandra is guilty or not; all that matters is getting the result expected of their side. After centuries of refinement, this is still the best we can come up with, but what's the alternative? The great issue with this system is of course that it's skewed in favour of those who can afford the best legal representation. That's not an issue for the affluent Sandra, plus her lawyer (Swann Arlaud) happens to be a family friend who has long harboured feelings for the accused. Yet she still finds her words (both those she has written in her work and those she speaks in her defence) manipulated by the prosecution.

This idea of being betrayed by words runs throughout Anatomy of a Fall. The film's one all too convenient contrivance asks us to accept that Samuel recorded many of his conversations with his wife. One is a blazing row that Triet initially visualises via flashback, only to cut to the courtroom as the jurors listen to the audio at the point where it appears to escalate to physical violence. It's unclear which of the two is perpetrating the violence, but Sandra is damned by her angry words. And then there's the content of her work, slyly manipulated by the prosecution to suggest confessional autobiography rather than literary fantasy. "Is Stephen King a serial killer?" Sandra's lawyer retorts to the suggestion.

It's no surprise then that Sandra is careful which words to use, and in which language. Outside the courtroom we see her speak French with seemingly no issues, but in the courtroom she insists on speaking English. Is she simply ensuring she says exactly what she means, or is this obfuscation a sign of her guilt?

Anatomy of a Fall review

Along with the jury and the viewer, Sandra's guilt is unknown to her own son. Again it's never quite clear, but the film poses the idea that having lost one parent he might be willing to ignore any doubts to ensure he doesn't also lose his mother. It's the child's hands that play the Chopin/Gainsbourg piece, adding further questions. Is he playing Chopin or Gainsbourg? Is he thinking purely of musical notes as he plays or the grisly words that later became associated in French pop culture with those notes?

Hüller's enigmatic performance keeps us guessing as to the nature of Sandra's guilt. Some may read her calmness as a lack of remorse, others as simply Teutonic repose. When she panics at questioning from the prosecution, is it because she fears her guilt is about to be exposed or because her innocence is being dismissed? Sandra lies over certain details, like how she acquired bruising on her arms. Is she doing this to cover her tracks or to avoid being railroaded into digging a hole for herself? Each viewer will come to their own conclusion, but none of us can say for certain. Triet and Huller have publicly stated that even they don't know whether their protagonist is guilty or not, and it's their movie. What gives the rest of us the right to pass judgement?

Anatomy of a Fall is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2023 movie reviews