First, you see a URL. Lowercase white letters on a black background: didshedoit.com. This question hangs over the death at the center of Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall. This is the logline and the crux of the movie, too, did Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) do it, or didn’t she? Did she murder her husband or did he jump to his death? The new truer-than-true-crime story does not answer our question directly and that’s what makes it so immediate and captivating, as we follow the red herrings and the audience is made to become a hung jury.
Don’t let the social hook fool you at the start. Triet gets right into the meat of it when the movie starts properly. Several things happen here. We see a dog and the boy the dog belongs to. Sandra is in her living room with a fellow creative writer discussing their process. Then there is an interruption that stops the conversation cold: Sandra’s husband Samuel (Samuel Maleski), is upstairs renovating their new home in the French Alps and blasting some music. Not just any music. Some rendition of 50 Cent’s “PIMP”. Not just any rendition — this clanging steelpan version comes by way of a German funk band (Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band — enjoy, they’re awesome), and he seems to be purposefully filling up all the space in the house. So, the writer leaves and the music continues and we get several shots of the aftermath. The boy goes out walking the dog. The wife goes upstairs to work and think. Some scenic but off-kilter shots of the French Alps. Then we get the dead husband, bled out in the snow.
The rest of Anatomy of a Fall is spent anatomizing what has happened. We think, in several ways both structurally and developmentally, about Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the ultimate courtroom drama. Triet has a terrific sense of control, her movie is never weighed down by the subject of the movie going cold at the start, but rather, feels invigorated by what it does not show, and begs for repeat viewings from dedicated enough viewers who will find its open-ended ambiguities worth combing over.
Anatomy of a Fall already has its rave notices. It’s already won the intermittently most significant award of the festival season, Cannes’ Palme d’Or. That ensures a certain future for the movie already. This feels like the right kind of beneficial Palme d’Or win, too: Triet is a good filmmaker with a robust future and the status elevates this film into other kinds of contention. Raves are also due for the two signature actors here, Sandra Hüller is lights-out at showing and withholding and Milo Machado Graner, who plays her musically-gifted visually impaired son, has such an astute sense of mature emotion and is the winningest portrayal in the picture. We can expect further great things. The cinematography of Simon Beaufils ought to draw its notices, as each frame is not just composed of characters but architectural spaces and many shots are neatly layered, besides just being beautifully set against the French Alps.
There is a small sense of conflict here, in that the interrogation is not nearly as curious as the events that happen around them. In the courtroom grilling that transpires, we do not find out so much about our characters, as we are presented with expository information about the parts of the case. A courtroom is so often used in this way and it’s more evident when paired against other good parts. And yet, when the actors are good and well-directed, you should hardly care, as every movement is also probing the audience to think more roundly about the evidence they’ve been presented. Often the filmmaker straddles the lines between giving and withholding information and there are, as a result, just some moments where we want to throw our hands up and beg for more exacting information. On the contrary side, the filmmaker also heavily leans the text in one way with the only bad performance, that of the prosecutor who is so central and innately unlikable that the design of the film favors one side fully by consequence, you just want him to lose the case.
It’s about the destination, for the audience. Where do you fall? Did she do it or did he do it to himself? Underneath these questions, the drama of a troubled relationship bubbles just beneath the surface. Justine Triet & Sandra Hüller make such natural collaborators and we can tell they are getting the best work out of each other. Did she do it? One side feels cleaner than the other but either one makes the movie interesting in a different way, maybe try watching it holding one belief, and then the other. Just be careful about what and who you hold closest. As the romantic philosopher 50 Cent once said in Get Rich or Die Trying (2005), “Show no love, love will get you killed.”