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Anatomy of a Fall: A Brilliantly Acted, Nuanced Exploration of Marriage, Mental Health, and a ‘Murder’

Anatomy of a Fall: A Brilliantly Acted, Nuanced Exploration of Marriage, Mental Health, and a ‘Murder’

When forensic dissection of a man’s tragic fall becomes a clinical analysis of a tumultuous marriage, blood-spatter analysis becomes less important than scrutinising the blemishes in the couple’s relationship

Director: Justine Triet

Writer: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari

Cast: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth

Stars: 4

Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall won the Palme d’Or at the 76th Cannes Film Festival making it the third film directed by a woman to win the top prize. Not only that, Snoop, the film’s border collie, also picked up the coveted Palme Dog, an honour given to the best canine in the festival’s films. The French courtroom drama is now competing with Hollywood movies including Oppenheimer and Barbie for the Best Picture award, in the main category, while Triet is the only woman nominated in the Best Director category at the upcoming 96th annual Academy Awards. The movie, which is not France’s official entry at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category, has also bagged three more nominations, that of Best Original Screenplay (Justine Triet and Arthur Harari), Best Actress (Sandra Hüller) and Best Editing (Laurent Sénéchal).


When a husband, Samuel Maleski’s (Samuel Theis) body is found next to his chalet that stands solitary and unfinished amid a frozen desolate mountain landscape, it is presumed that he has had a fall from the window of his third-floor room. But was it an accidental fall, a suicide, or a cold-blooded murder? Since, the only other person present in the house at that time was his wife, successful author Sandra Voyter (the phenomenal Sandra Hüller), and the cause of a head injury found on the body is inconclusive, she becomes the main suspect.

As the trial proceeds, along with the forensic study of Maleski’s body after the fall, their marriage also gets dissected and even its ugly bits are put on the evidence table for the world to judge. To understand the anatomy of the fall, one must understand the anatomy of this marriage that might have led up to the fall. As the trial proceeds, the verdict hinges on the testimonial of the visually impaired pre-teen son of the couple, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who had discovered the body. But is his perception and memory of the facts of the fateful day totally reliable?

Is Sandra as innocent as she claims to be? Did she push Samuel? Was it just the fall of Samuel or was it also of Sandra’s in the eyes of her son? 

What Lies Beneath

Just like last month’s Hindi release, Merry Christmas, this gripping and metaphorical Palme D’or winning courtroom drama goes far beyond being just a murder mystery; Anatomy of a Fall–that takes its title directly from Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder– is also a nuanced take on issues like depression, guilt, and trauma, and an exploration of a German female migrant in French society. But more than anything, much like Noah Baumbach’s 2019 drama The Marriage Story, this movie, written by real-life couple Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, is not only a forensic deconstruction of the anatomy of the fall but also that of the anatomy of a marriage.

The movie makes one re-evaluate one’s stance on fidelity, emotional compatibility, the need for space vis-a-vis the need for physical intimacy, division of familial duties along with the single-minded pursuit to achieve one’s dreams, whether signing up for the role of a caregiver should be a default setting while facing the deteriorating of mental health of the partner, etc within the institution of marriage.

The story of this marriage… what led to Samuel’s tragic fall, unfolds with multiple unreliable narrators as part of the trial in the courtroom as flashbacks.

In Sandra’s version, which of course makes every attempt to absolve her of any legal crime, Samual was plagued with a sense of guilt as he blamed himself for their son’s accident that made him partially blind. He was a failed writer who liked to think of himself as a victim of his circumstances and had also started to face serious financial issues. He was struggling with deteriorating mental health and was unhappy with his therapist putting him on strong anti-depressants and trying to wean himself of it. He had decided to relocate the family to his French hometown where Sandra, a German, starts facing hostility on a regular basis from the locals. He was amid a long-drawn process of building their chalet at an isolated spot in the snow-capped Grenoble Mountain, while Sandra got busy writing her novels leaving the major chunk of responsibility of the house as well as household chores to the husband. According to her Samuel might have previously attempted suicide as well, but she had let it pass as Samuel didn’t want to broach the topic.

In the prosecution’s collaged version that includes the testimony and assumptions of Samuel’s therapist, an audio tape with a heated conversation between the couple that culminates in physical violence, and also passages from one of Sandra’s books. According to it Sandra was the tormentor who was so engrossed in creating her world of fiction, for which she admittedly cannibalised her own life that she almost shut out Samuel’s cries for help just as she earplugged herself when he would blast out music– a steel-drum cover of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P.– in loop, may be in an attempt to drown his inner demons or maybe just to vent his frustration. According to the therapist Sandra blamed Samuel for their son’s misfortune and that aggravated his deep-seated guilt and depression.

If you believe the first version you can hail her for being a woman who refuses to conform to the gender roles of society, in fact she doesn’t let herself get bogged down by society in any way even refusing to flash a courtesy smile when she encounters neighbours or locals. She is stoic, not overly feminine or even maternal. She lives her life according to her rules and prioritises her happiness, and refuses to apologise for it. She unabashedly admits to having bisexual relationships when her husband is unable to satisfy her sexual needs. You applaud a woman’s dedication toward her passion for her writing and her refusal to get tied down by domestic responsibilities and childcare duties and short-change her career to become a rehab for her insecure husband. She is pragmatic. rational and practical and does what is needed without getting into the lachrymose emotional narrative of her troubled husband who apart from building the house is also building stories in his head and wallowing in self-pity. 

If you believe the second, Sandra is an ice-cold and manipulative woman who refuses to shoulder the domestic responsibilities in equal measures with her husband, she refuses to take responsibility for her infidelity, and her single-minded pursuit to become a famous novelist makes her cannibalise her own life and also ‘steal’ her husband’s concept. She fails miserably as a caregiver to a person suffering from serious mental issues, so much so, that when the couple breaks into a fight a day before the Fall, she fails to understand or empathise with his angst and despair, and dismisses them as a distortion of his mind; she even blames him for his miseries rebuking him for his lack of ambition and tenacity. As the argument escalates, she even slaps him. Physical violence here is initiated by the wife, which the audio captures the noise of, and upon asking, Sandra admits to in the court. It seems her earplugged existence was to deliberately keep out Samuel’s desperate cries for help.

But Triet doesn’t leave it to just unreliable narrators. The couple don’t speak the same language, metaphorically and literally. Neither Samuel nor Sandra speak in their mother tongue and instead find common ground in English, and it seems a lot of real emotions were getting lost in translation, and that impacts their understanding of each other.  Daniel is visually impaired and hence he hears the voices and imagines the visuals that can best correspond to those. In fact, Triet uses this in the courtroom scene in a very different but brilliant way, in what can be considered the centrepiece of the movie, when a recording (taped by Samuel as part of his writing project) of a heated altercation between Samuel and Sandra is played—one, much like Daniel, has to assume the visuals by hearing the voices and the sounds. Nobody in this movie really understands the other person and one is left to presume the truth constantly.

In fact, the audience is faced with the same dilemma as young Daniel, Sandra, and Samuel’s son who is the key witness in the case. Both must choose which story to believe. When Daniel, confused by the bombardment of a gamut of fresh and conflicting information, tells Berger (Jehnny Beth), the monitor appointed to monitor Daniel and ensure that his mother doesn’t influence his testimony, that he will never be able to understand the truth, Marge tells Daniel “All we can do is decide.” There is no empirical truth here, truth here is a decision. Daniel makes his decision to trust Sandra.

Maybe both versions are true. As Sandra points out during the trial, the human mind often exaggerates things during an altercation. Also, events can impact human minds so differently that at times their versions of the event can be entirely different from one another — yet to each their version is the truth, they have not deliberately introduced a lie, their minds have just processed it based on their backstory, reference points, EQ, and mental makeup. The fact that Samuel is no longer alive to present his own version first-hand just makes it extra challenging to separate facts from fiction, if there are any.

Or maybe as Sandra says: “Sometimes a couple is kind of chaos and everybody is lost. Sometimes we fight together and sometimes we fight alone, and sometimes we fight against each other, that happens.” It is just another marriage, and it is all as simple and complex as that.

The Craft

Sandra Hüller has time and again proved herself as an extraordinary performer. Be it the corporate lady in Toni Erdmann or an exorcized woman in Requiem or the Nazi commandant’s wife in the upcoming movie, The Zone of Interest, she is not the one to pick an easy character. Here she is impeccable as the calm and stoic novelist and the way the actor builds and maintains the ambiguity of the character is stunning. She becomes the character—elusive, pragmatic, manipulative, and a woman of a measured show of emotion. Her’s is definitely one of the best performances of 2023, well deserving of the Oscar nomination.

Milo Machado Graner plays the partially blind Daniel to perfection and with a piercing gaze. As a 10-year-old who had discovered his father’s lifeless body and is now grappling to understand the realities of his parents and their relationship as a couple, and upon whose testimonial rests the future of his mother, Graner is a standout. His scene where he does a potentially tragic experiment on his beloved dog, Snoop, or the one where he tells Marge about his inability to understand what is the actual truth, or the last scene with him cradling his mother, Graner’s is an authentic performance that enhances the emotional layering of the film.

While the movie starts in a languorous pace with an apparently whimsical tracking shot from the point of view of the dog, the 151-minute courtroom drama soon gathers momentum and as it enters the courtroom, a restless screenplay matched by an equally restless camera that often makes the audience feel like a fly on the wall during the courtroom scenes ensures there is not a single dull moment. While the slow pace of the first few scenes reflects the ennui that has set in inside the house, the frosty relation between the couple is reflected in the mounting snow that isolates this abode. As the movie proceeds, you realise that even the most whimsy and the trivial are carefully incorporated each serving a crucial purpose. The subtitled film switches back and forth between English and French, which might not work for everybody, but it is one of the major reasons for resentment between Sandra and Samuel and serves as a plot device.

Triet and Harari’s writing is superlative. They make this marital drama disguised as a murder mystery unfold almost in a Rashomonesque manner and leave the audience questioning the very anatomy of truth. And the way they incorporate humour in the unlikeliest of situations (how else do you explain 50 Cent and ‘Snoop’ dog playing such crucial roles in a courtroom drama!) is absolutely brilliant. The editing ensures each scene is given the right amount of time to unfold.

The Underwhelming Aspect

I am unsure if the movie accurately depicts the French judiciary system, as both the defence and the prosecution spend much time talking about speculative stuff and ending them with “it’s not evidence”. It was almost like a Kangaroo Court. Conjectures get precedence over testimony. It was as if the lawyers were also writing a book–one inspired by real life, just as the books Sandra writes where when is not sure where the facts end and the fiction begins. Then there is a psychiatrist who mostly tables hearsay. Yes, all these add drama, but I would suggest avoiding getting involved in a court case in France!


The movie closes with the audience still unsure about Sandra’s innocence, even after the legal verdict. In fact, with this tale of unreliable narrators and a blind witness, Triet deliberately leaves the audience with more questions than she had started off with: Why is emotional non-availability in a marriage, especially when your partner is making his last-ditch attempt at life and pushing him to the edge, not an offense? Can we change the gender roles just by swapping them… isn’t a woman not taking part in daily chores and getting absolutely engrossed in fulfilling her professional ambitions as problematic as a man traditionally doing so? Can confessing to your partner about having sexual encounters outside marriage be considered as ‘honesty’ and by default erase its consequences? Does a wife have any claim over the husband’s intellectual property, his creation, can you just pluck an idea from your husband’s in-process book and write your own novel making it the centrepiece? What kind of boundaries should one have in a marriage? Should only the physical act of killing be considered as pushing someone to his death?

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