As soon as a defendant steps foot in the court room, they are put on trial for more than just the crime of which they are accused. Facts are not revealed so much as they are interpreted. Who you are and what you may be capable of are of far more importance than means, motive and opportunity. When Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) discovers and reports the lifeless body of her husband three floors below an open attic window, she is thrown into a system intent on probing her marriage, her parenting and her writing as much as her responsibility for the death of her husband. In Anatomy of a Fall, director Justine Triet (Sibyl) uses the trappings of a murder trial to interrogate the stories we tell to calm the unease of uncertainty and the way those narratives interact with the truth.
It becomes immediately clear when a young journalist (Camile Rutherford) comes to visit Sandra at her remote —and gorgeous — cabin in the French Alps that something strange is happening. She’s there to interview Sandra about her new book, but her subject is far more interested in conversation than answering questions. Stunning as the mountain vista surrounding her home may be, to her the snow capped peaks serve as the bars of a cage, trapping her alone with her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their nearly blind son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner). It isn’t that the German author dislikes her family, but she does yearn to socialize and her ambitions are too grand to be confined by the walls of her French chalet.
All seems well until Samuel, working in the attic above, begins blasting 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. so loudly that it shakes the house. This acoustic intrusion is shocking to her interviewer, but Sandra seems unfazed, as if this is a regular occurrence. She brushes it off and calls of the interview before retiring to her room. Some time later Daniel returns from a walk with the family dog Snoop (an adorable pup named Messi) only to discover his father laying lifeless in the snow below an open attic window. Daniel’s screams wake his mother who rushes down and calls the authorities.
These facts are the only we are privy to as Triet allows her camera to see only through the eyes of investigators and lawyers who were not present. A man is dead, a window is open and Sandra is the only person home at the time. Facts are thin and the rest is for a jury — and film audience — to determine. Sandra is put on trial for her husbands death and inconsistencies arise. Holes in Daniel’s memory, a recorded fight between Samuel and Sandra, contradictory forensic analysis all complicate the already murky narrative being built around Samuel’s demise. Each piece of evidence comes with a new theory, clouding the question of whether Samuel was murdered. Scene after scene of well paced courtroom debate seeks to determine Sandra’s guilt, yet her culpability is actually of very little interest to Anatomy of a Fall.
Late in her trial, Sandra turns on the television to see a morning talk show host declare “A writer murdering her husband is much more interesting than a teacher killing himself.” For all the presented evidence, theories by the prosecution and refutations by the defense, nothing cuts to the core of Triet’s icy, calculated courtroom thriller like that line. A jury is nothing more than a collection of individuals who are told two conflicting stories and asked to determine which is more believable. Each of those tales is as much a blend of truth and fiction as one of Sandra’s novels, but the stakes are infinitely higher. One life is already lost and another depends on whose narrative can better adhere to a juror’s understanding of the world. Perception will always be functionally more true than reality.
Evidence in Sandra’s case is exceedingly sparse. Three drops of blood for forensic analysis is the only piece of physical evidence in the state’s case. Without witnesses or a murder weapon Sandra’s marriage and personality is put on trial. Central to the whole case is a tape Samuel made of the couple fighting. Both parties raise voices and get physical but it is the wife who is deemed irrational for her outbursts. Sandra’s past infidelity is brought to the fore and her callous demeanor interrogated. Prosecutors at one point even attempt to use her fiction writing against her. Unable to prove her guilt outright, the trial becomes about whether Sandra is a good wife or mother. In short, is she the kind of person who could be guilty.
Hüller plays Sandra with a striking precision. Not entirely cold or unfeeling but self-interested enough to allow questions into her telling of the story. Her exasperation is evident even before Samuel’s fatal fall. Sandra makes up stories for a living and Hüller is brilliant in the way she seeds every statement with just a kernel of doubt to grow through the genuineness of her words. It is a tricky balance but she its it perfectly. Everyone in the supporting ensemble is good too, especially Machado-Graner as Daniel and Swann Arlaud, playing Sandra’s capable lawyer and old friend who is a bit to close to be objective.
Did she do it? I wont spoil the jury’s decision, but in Triet’s telling guilt is almost beside the point. Every second of life is so awash in uncertainty that it would be paralyzing without a narrative. Just to survive belief must become truth, people have to be noble or cruel, trustworthy or dishonest. What we believe about somebody matters more than who that person is because the latter is ultimately unknowable. Anatomy of a Fall puts on trial more than just a wife accused of murder, it adjudicates a husband’s perception of his marriage and career, a mother’s contentment in her new home and a son’s understanding of his parents. Each of Sandra, Samuel and Daniel had their own story of their shared life that did not match up to the reality of the others.
Slickly paced, incisively shot and chillingly scored by a simple piano score, Anatomy of a Fall takes pains to encourage doubt. Ambiguity frustrates the characters and audience alike until that doubt crystallizes into a certainty that truth is malleable. We take in more information than could reasonably be processed and have to distill it into an understanding that allows us to move forward. Triet has created a film that wholly comprehends the gray area we inhabit between right and wrong.