Anatomie d’une chute: life imitating art and becoming faction in courtroom drama

Justine Triet, “Anatomie d’une chute” / “Anatomy of a Fall” (2023)

In “Anatomie d’une chute”, the dry courtroom drama format becomes instead a psychological study of a marriage in crisis, culminating in the death of the husband and his wife being indicted for suspected murder. Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) is a German novelist who meets Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), a French academic and aspiring novelist, in Britain. The two fall in love and marry, and have a son Daniel (Milo Machado Granier). At the age of four years, Daniel has an injury that causes him to go blind, and Samuel blames himself for not attending to Daniel in time and avoiding the injury. The family moves to Samuel’s home community near Grenoble in the French Alps, in the belief that a change of scenery will help Samuel’s writing. Samuel spends most of his time renovating an Alpine chalet, homeschooling Daniel and teaching at the local college while Voyter writes and publishes a number of novels. One day, Sandra is being interviewed by a graduate student at home but has to end the interview when Samuel starts playing loud music up in the attic. After the student leaves, Daniel takes his dog Snoop for a walk and Sandra goes to her bed for a nap. When Daniel and Snoop return, they find Samuel dead on the ground with a head wound, after a fall from the attic on the chalet’s third floor. The circumstances of Samuel’s death, the police investigation and the results of Samuel’s autopsy lead authorities to suspect Sandra of direct involvement in Samuel’s fall and death, and she is charged with murder.

From there, the film dives deep into presenting possible scenarios leading to Samuel’s death, initially from the points of view of the prosecuting lawyer (Antoine Reinartz) and the defending lawyer Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud). The prosecuting side probes Sandra’s past infidelities during the marriage and we learn that on the day of Samuel’s death, she was flirting with the graduate student interviewer. The prosecutor notes that Sandra drew on personal experience, including her fights with Samuel, to write her novels and suggests that a character’s thoughts in one of her novels mirror Sandra’s thoughts about killing Samuel. The defending lawyer tries to put forward the case that Samuel’s death was accidental. As the case progresses, and Daniel is called on to testify, the defence team leans more to the possibility that Samuel may have been suicidal in the months leading up to his death.

At every step of the way, viewers see that characters bend the story behind Samuel’s death to suit their prejudices: Sandra finds herself very much an outsider in the rather complicated and sometimes chaotic French legal proceedings that veer into psychological analysis; her defending lawyer, a former lover, seems to want Sandra back now that she is free; and Samuel’s psychoanalyst has his reputation of never having patients die on him to defend. Daniel is shocked to discover things he never knew about both his parents coming out into the open, and feels himself in freefall between what is the truth and what is not. In the end, his carer Marge urges him to decide for himself what seems most like the truth and Daniel goes ahead with her advice. He pieces together what he remembers of a conversation he had with Samuel about Snoop, and this conversation leads the boy to testify further in court.

Ultimately, we never really learn what actually happened to Samuel, as fact and fiction blur into one another and truth ends up being only as accurate as memory – and selective memory at that – allows. The courtroom antics appear more whimsical than dry and straightforward, with the judge allowing a minor to engage in philosophical reflection before the jury, witnesses and onlookers. When the trial ends, everyone is exhausted, and at that point the film closes, with no suggestion as to how the various characters will continue. Hüller and Machado Graner deliver outstanding performances as mother and son in a troubled relationship with one another and with husband / father Samuel. Even the dog that plays Snoop puts in an astonishing performance in a scene where he overdoses on aspirin!

While the direction and cinematography can at times deliver some unexpected surprises – in early scenes, the camera follows Snoop’s point of view as the dog winds his way through the police and media during the initial investigation – overall the film follows a minimal and realist presentation, with a slow pace. Parts of the film can be dry and repetitive, and the running time of 150+ minutes is very excessive for a film with a thin plot and rather banal themes of life imitating art and of fact and fiction blending so much that separating one from the other is impossible.