Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall Scrutinises the Impossibility of a Single Truth

Beginning his final statement to the court in the trial of his mother Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) for the murder of her husband and his father, twelve-year-old Daniel Maleski (Milo Machado Graner) states: “It feels as if when we lack proof to make us sure how something happened, we have to look further, as the trial is doing. When we have looked everywhere and still don’t understand how the thing happened, I think we have to ask why it happened.”

He is about to give evidence that will potentially lead to the acquittal of his mother. Evidence that supports the hypothesis that Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) chose to end his life in a fall from his chalet window.

Justine Triet’s complex drama Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d’une chute) is a dissection of a marriage as much as it an observation of the French legal system. The notion of guilt or innocence are at the heart of the film but the actual guilt or innocence of Sandra in the alleged murder of her husband is less important than the multiple layers of guilt (or lack thereof) inside Sandra and Samuel’s marriage, and the destruction of innocence that plays out in the choices their son, Daniel, must make.

Justine Triet opens the film with a tennis ball bouncing down a flight of stairs. Vision impaired Daniel is about to take his dog Snoop for a walk in the surrounds of his French Alps home. Inside, his mother, an acclaimed novelist, is conducting an interview with a graduate student Zoé Solidor Camille Rutherford). Sandra demurs from answering questions about her work, especially those which touch on her use of real life for fiction. Instead, she turns the interview into a conversation where she is trying to get the young woman to reveal something about herself. Sandra says it is because she is so isolated in the chalet and she craves any kind of human connection. It is somewhat more than that, but the interview is scuppered by her unseen husband Samuel blasting an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. on a loop.

Zoé and then Daniel leave the house. By the time Daniel returns Samuel will be dead lying in the snow with a blunt force trauma headwound. Triet then focusses on photographs of Sandra and Samuel in their respective youths. Pictures that seem representative of their pasts, but in many ways are not. A young Sandra in Germany smiles in front of a Christmas tree. A young Samuel is shown with braids. The couple are together at parties and dinners with friends in London. There are pictures of Sandra holding her the new-born Daniel. Triet and co-screenwriter Arthur Harari are setting up a clear metaphor with the snapshots – a picture captures a moment but in reality, that moment has several interpretations depending on who is in the shot and who took it and why. Memories too are interpretations. A single fight is not the sum of a marriage although it will serve as one. Moments recorded are not indicative of the full truth although they may reveal aspects of it. Triet is saying even if we think we know, we do not. We fill in the blanks and arrive at our own truths.

Immediately the next photographs of Samuel are of his body being examined. Again, there is evidence of something but no objective proof. Sandra maintains her innocence and calls Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud) her former admirer and the only lawyer she knows. He tells her that it isn’t a matter of what is true it is a matter of what people will believe and even he can’t completely believe Samuel’s death was accidental. Sandra takes him through the chalet (magnificently shot by Simon Beaufils to accentuate different angles and points of view, even that of Snoop the dog). It’s a baffling place considering its size – a labyrinth the audience can never quite figure out no matter how many times they’re taken through it.

Sandra is inevitably indicted and a year later she is on trial for every aspect of her life. For many viewers the intricacies of the French legal system will be confusing (see also Alice Diop’s incredible Saint Omer). There are sitting members of a tribunal but most of the arguments are directed entirely to the Présidente (Anne Rotger). Vincent and Maître Nour Boudaoud (Saadia Bentaïeb) act as Sandra’s defence while an unnamed Avocat général (Antoine Reinartz) is the prosecution. Sandra is granted bail and allowed to live with Daniel (who is a material witness) but he must be supervised by a court appointed guardian, Marge Berger (Jehnny Beth) at home.

Through the trial the audience comes to realise they will never absolutely comprehend Sandra Voyter. She is a multifaceted woman who is as much on trial for her gendered success and sexuality as she is for a murder. Is she really a loving mother? She was an unfaithful wife. Did she steal her husband’s work to fold into her own? Was she the reason he was failing as an author? Or was he never going to be an author anyway? Was she resentful about being trapped in Samuel’s personal trap? Yes. Did she pity him? Yes and no. Was she furious with him for using his guilt about Daniel’s accident to make her the locus for his own failings and manipulate her?

Sandra Voyter is an embodied enigma, but she is also human. She lies because she knows certain things will make her appear guilty and her lies are uncovered. She crosses lines she should not with Daniel. She uses Vincent’s attraction to her to her advantage. She has also taken from other people’s lives in her fiction to create versions of them that not only serve her purposes for personal catharsis (one novel is very much related to her relationship with her father) and to also create bestsellers. Is she too stoic? Is she feigning emotion? Triet is pointing a finger at the audience telling them they are like the journalists who declare, “The idea of a writer killing her husband is far more interesting that a teacher killing himself.” How much time do we spend speculating on the lives of others, especially with our true crime fascination?

It should at this stage almost go without saying that Sandra Hüller is a performer with few equals. As Voyter she is flinty, sympathetic, seductive, loving, vulnerable, and also ice cold. As she deals with the continued barrage of the Avocat général’s clearly sexist questions she moves between anger, exasperation, and desperation. When dealing with Samuel’s therapist’s testimony it becomes a battle of wills where the therapist wants to blame Sandra for Samuel’s depression and Sandra tries to explain why Samuel stopped taking his escitalopram. Samuel was a man who lived ashamed of his role in his son’s accident, in his failure as a novelist, and as a lover for Sandra. But how can any of this be adequately be communicated without Sandra appearing to be some kind of “castrating” force in his life?

Although Hüller is clearly the draw in the cast, the newcomer Milo Machado Graner is astonishing as Daniel. A child who cannot see clearly both literally and figuratively. If anyone has been made to trust in the “goodness” of his parents, it is he. Even after death he is being asked to choose a parent. Does he choose the man who home schooled him and spent more time with him? Or does he choose his ostensibly distant mother? What does he choose to believe and what outcome with that belief have?

Justine Triet takes the viewer through many versions of falls. The fall that is at the centre of the trial but also the falls that are involved with love – both falling in and out of it. Can a couple find neutral ground if it requires one or the other to give up what they desire? Sandra Voyter is on trial for murder, but she is also on trial for being a woman who fiercely defends her rights to be imperfect. Triet and Harari refuse to give the audience a final answer on Voyter’s guilt as a murderer, and like Voyter herself they only give parts of a whole that are asking what your interpretation is. Anatomy of a Fall is challenging and enthralling work which keeps the audience guessing and deliberately scrutinises the notion of guilt and innocence. You simply have to choose what you will believe and come to terms with that choice.

Director: Justine Triet

Cast: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner

Writers: Justine Triet, Arthur Harari

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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