Of all the ways that a relationship can end, a fundamental disagreement about a work of art is in some ways extremely silly. And yet, a film or a book exposing an irreparable rift in a love that perhaps wasn’t as compatible, as symbiotic or as caring as one might have thought is also, somehow, as good a reason as any. Maybe it will even, eventually, provide a funny story.
Another, more excruciating, way for a relationship to end is with one party falling off the roof of a house to their death, followed by a humiliating public trial to determine the fault or innocence of the other, as happens in Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or-winning “Anatomy of a Fall.” And just like “The Corrections” before it, it seems that “Anatomy of a Fall” might be the new litmus test for modern relationships. See it with a romantic partner at your own risk. But, from my perch, this is one that’s worth the debate(s) it provokes.
Sandra Hüller, the German actor known for “Toni Erdmann” and, soon, “ The Zone of Interest,” is Sandra, a writer living in a chalet in the French Alps with her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), and 11-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). Triet thrusts the audience into a tense and stressful atmosphere, introducing us to Sandra in the midst of an interview with a grad student, a woman, which will become significant later. Sandra is a little prickly and sipping a glass of red wine while deflecting questions back at her interviewer. It is hard to focus on what they’re saying, however, as an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” blares through the household on a deafening, constant and maddening loop. Samuel’s choice, apparently.
The student leaves, Sandra waves goodbye from a balcony, 50 Cent still playing, glass of red still in hand and Daniel, who is blind, heads out for a walk with his dog. He returns to find his father on the ground outside, dead and bleeding out. Sandra’s lawyer, Vincent (Swann Arlaud, a calming presence), later analyzes the fall trajectory and finds the cause of death “inconclusive.”
“Stop,” Sandra says. “I did not kill him.”
“That’s not the point,” Vincent responds.
It’s one brief exchange that could sum up the 150-minute film, which is a smartly constructed and wholly engaging whodunit, courtroom thriller, marriage drama and, at some points, satire. This is not really a tearjerker, but a visceral dismantling of a life that’s either happening in the wake of a tragedy or a murder. Either way, it’s uncomfortable to watch Samuel’s sharp, merciless advocate (Antoine Reinartz) grill Sandra about their marriage troubles and why, in his mind, that makes her a likely suspect. She’s also accused of doing it for material for her books.
Hüller makes the audience squirm along with her as she plays the tricky game of knowing when to take the insults and when to push back (without seeming “unlikable,” of course), and she’s doing this all in two languages that aren’t the character’s own (French and English). It’s exhausting, illuminating and triggering to be reminded of the internalized misogyny that still exists and even thrives in marriages that look evolved and equal on paper. But it’s hard to fight back when parties can hide their own culpability behind therapy-speak.
For Daniel, the trial and his part in it plays out like a vicious divorce proceeding, in which his parents’ characters are dissected and annihilated. He bears witness to their fights, their infidelities, their insecurities and all manner of speculation made by prosecutors, therapists and judges about the private matters of this couple, the complexities of which are far too great for a child burdened with the loss of one parent and the possible imprisonment of another.
And, of course, Samuel is unable to speak for himself — not really at least. His therapist has some insights and assumptions, his lawyer has many, and there is one brutal argument that we’re all privy too, since he himself recorded it in secret to inspire his own writings. For some audiences, this might be the biggest and most egregious injustice of all, coating everything with an uncertainty that will never be resolved. At a certain point, you might even forget that it’s a murder trial you’re watching.
“Anatomy of a Fall” may not be a film with many concrete answers, ultimately, but the truths it uncovers are irrefutable.
“Anatomy of a Fall,” a Neon release, in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “sexual references, violent images and some language.” Running time: 150 minutes. Four stars out of four.