Receiving one of the most prestigious awards on the film calendar will always set a film apart, bringing more intense scrutiny with it. For 2023’s Palme d’Or winner, ANATOMY OF A FALL, claiming the high prize of Cannes Film Festival is a poisoned chalice, in which the film is perfectly fine (and even threatens greatness at certain points), but expectations for audiences are then set just high enough to feel unattainable. For director Justine Triet, this ironically resembles the marriage that weaves itself between the threads of her plot in ANATOMY OF A FALL, where a catalyst strips bare the inherent messiness of a modern relationship. For Triet, the catalyst for scrutiny is the Palme d’Or; for ANATOMY OF A FALL, it’s a death.
The death in question is that of Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), whose dead body is found having fallen three stories, the blood protruding from a fatal head wound staining the snow around his secluded family home, the abode a frosty prison miles away from other people. Before his body is found, we are introduced to the varying relationship dynamics within the family, such as the emotional distance between Samuel and his wife, Sandra Voyter (an exceptional Sandra Hüller). She struggles to conduct an interview due to Samuel’s repetitive playing of the instrumental version of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P on an exceedingly loud volume. After stopping the interview early because of the music, each character goes their separate way. Their son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), escapes the deafening music by taking the dog for a walk, and Sandra, headphones in, begins transcribing the interview. Returning from the walk is when Daniel finds his lifeless paternal figure, the rap instrumental reverberating through the house on the same loop as it was before Sandra and Daniel’s departures. How Samuel’s body got there is where Triet dives into the fallacy of appearances, as Sandra is soon blamed regardless of compelling evidence of it being an accident. Her flimsy alibi, Daniel’s potential testimony of an argument just before Samuel’s death and the delayed mention of an apparent suicide attempt made by her husband leave her the prime and only suspect.
Indicted by the French courts for murder, Sandra must contest her innocence as the courts attempt a character assassination. Triet uses this to deftly discuss the facets of modern relationship dynamics, especially that of the working woman. The prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz) attempts to weaponise Sandra’s career as an author, specifically the nature of her writing, taking the words she once wrote about a character idealising the murder of a spouse out of context. He also attacks her for her bisexuality, offering it as a reason for her previous infidelity while also making a concerted effort to speak in French, a language Sandra is not fluent in and struggles to explain herself in, her words lost in translation. For Sandra, it isn’t just her husband’s death that she’s on trial for; it’s her messy marriage and womanhood. The fine-toothed comb of judicial scrutiny reveals to a jury the cracks that spread from years of eroding each other’s lives, their devout love having slowly thawed as Samuel’s career halters in favour of Sandra’s. This dissection is all in front of her visually impaired 11-year-old son, Daniel, who has spent his life thus far shielded from his parents’ tribulations. The innocent ideas of his parent’s marriage slowly crumble as the trial continues. Daniel himself is caught in the middle of all this; his loyalty to his family and his visual disability is caught in the crossfire of the courts debating how accurate his testimony could possibly be.
“What sets ANATOMY OF A FALL apart as lesser than other acclaimed courtroom dramas of its ilk […] is how much Triet refrains from allowing emotion to resonate with audiences. While those draw you in with its filmmaking and characters, Triet tells this so formally that it struggles to elicit anything tangibly emotional.”
The prosecution even tries to destabilise Sandra’s alibi by suggesting the song playing at high volume during the husband’s demise was on because it was misogynistic, put on by the husband to antagonise Sandra. 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P isn’t the only reference to music made by people of colour, as the family dog is named Snoop (Messi, the most deserved winner of the Palme Dog award in years). As the prosecutors in ANATOMY OF A FALL attempt to demote Sandra’s existence as a complicated person into that of a singular monster, capable of callous, calculating murder, Triet includes multiple references to gangster rap. The genre is a notoriously derided one, often seen depicting people of colour through dangerous stereotypes. There is a subtle parallel made between Triet’s use of rap music – often created by Black men unfairly maligned by societal systems – and the lack of delineation around Sandra as a whole that cannot go unnoticed.
What sets ANATOMY OF A FALL apart as lesser than other acclaimed courtroom dramas of its ilk, like Robert Luketic’s LEGALLY BLONDE or Sidney Lumet’s 12 ANGRY MEN, is how much Triet refrains from allowing emotion to resonate with audiences. While those draw you in with its filmmaking and characters, Triet tells this so formally that it struggles to elicit anything tangibly emotional. As intriguing as the story and its outcome are, the film’s moving parts are a complex, cold machination rather than anything that could be construed as the act of passion that these kinds of stories are often populated with. Perhaps the passionless marriage at the centre of the film permeates into too many crevices as the film is fraught with complex structures, resembling a snowflake: intricate and beguiling but so fragile that it would melt under warm fingertips.
This kind of mid-budget, methodical courtroom procedural is the kind of adult fare that should elicit a giant cheer from the audiences that bemoan about their disappearance. That it won a prestigious award at a major film festival is telling of how much we have retreated culturally. A competent, intriguing drama like this gaining award traction feels more symptomatic of it being the kind of good film that is now a rare occurrence within the film zeitgeist, rather than one that feels like it will be remembered after the award cycle. That ANATOMY OF A FALL even exists should be lauded, even if it runs the risk of being so subdued and pedestrian that its canine support steals the show.