Part thorny family story, part whodunit, part courtroom drama and part meditation on the nature of truth and fiction, Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” takes two hours of conversations and makes them both provocative and propulsive. It also gives German actress Sandra Hüller, previously best known for starring in “Toni Erdmann,” a formidable one-two punch following her key role in the chilling ensemble of actors playing happy Nazis in Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest.”
The film, which premiered on Sunday in Cannes’ Main Competition, isn’t flashy or showy. Its directness might even make it seem simpler than it is. Triet, whose previous films include “Sibyl” and “Age of Panic,” does just enough to keep its characters and its audience slightly off balance, unsure of the things they (and we) think they know.
Hüller plays Sandra Voyter, a writer who’s well-known enough that a young student has arrived to interview her at the ski chalet where she and her husband, Samuel (Swann Arlaud), live outside the town of Grenoble in the snowy French Alps. The young woman’s first question notes that Sandra draws from her own life, and asks a question that seems to be pretty simple but will prove to have reverberations throughout the film: “Do you think that you can only write from experience?”
Sandra, who seems very nice but also very reluctant to give straight answers, parries the query and tries to turn the interview on its head by asking the interviewer questions about herself. She’s aided in her quest to deflect (if that’s what this is) by an unidentified person who begins blasting 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” at house-shaking volume. Before long, interviewer and interviewee decide that a conversation is useless and agree to continue it at some point in Grenoble.
All of this has been intercut with flashes of a dog being washed, then taken outside by Sandra and Samuel’s son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), who appears to be sight-impaired to some degree. But when Daniel and the dog (Snoop, for anybody who wants to start handicapping the Palme Dog) return to the house, they find Samuel lying dead in the snow at the foot of the three-story chalet, blood spilled from a wound in his head.
Gradually, we learn that Samuel was the person who played music at earsplitting volume to disrupt the interview; that Sandra and Samuel had a 10-minute conversation of some sort after the interviewer left; that Sandra had worked for a while in bed and then fallen asleep; and that she was awakened when her earplug fell out and she heard Daniel screaming for help.
At least, that’s how Sandra tells the story to Vincent, a lawyer friend who advises her that she may be in big trouble. She seems incredulous, but he’s right: In very short order, Sandra is arrested for killing her husband, with the police’s theory being that she hit him with a blunt object while they were arguing on the second-floor balcony. The only other explanation, and the one that Vincent says they’ll have to prove, is that Samuel killed himself.
By the halfway point, the drama about a family coping with loss has turned into a courtroom drama — and while we’re naturally on Sandra’s side, there’s lots that doesn’t add up – on both sides. Triet withholds enough information to make it plausible that Sandra is a murderer and plausible that she isn’t.
Her style is to film things simply and let conversations play out in all their redundancy, false starts and stops and ambiguity. The prosecutor may appear to be a stock villain at times, but he’s definitely got a point at other times — and though she can be a strong visual stylist, Triet isn’t stacking the deck in the way she approaches the courtroom scenes. The total absence of score in the scenes is telling: Without musical cues to underline any points, we’re purposefully adrift without the usual cinematic markers.
But the deliberate flatness of the courtroom scenes is knocked for a loop when the prosecutor plays an audio recording of a fight that took place between Sandra and Samuel the day before he died. As the tape begins to play, we’re suddenly in the room with the couple as the argument is taking place, which gives those scenes a visceral charge that the movie has been avoiding. But at a crucial moment, when the verbal argument turns physical, we’re suddenly back in the courtroom listening, and then deciding whether or not to believe Sandra’s description of what happened at the end of the fight.
In a way, the ambiguity is the point, but so in the individual decision of what and whom to believe. That comes to the forefront when Daniel takes his second turn on the witness stand at the end of the case, an 11-year-old boy who has lost his father and then heard his parents’ fractured relationship laid bare in the most graphic and disturbing ways possible.
“Anatomy of a Fall” is straightforward in its style but sophisticated in the way Triet doles out information. It’s tense, unbearably so at times, but also subtle and satisfying. And Hüller, who was shortchanged back in 2016 when George Miller’s jury was inexplicably resistant to “Toni Erdmann,” ought to be in line for some serious attention from jury president Ruben Östlund’s panel this year for her richly textured performance, even without factoring in her disturbing work in “The Zone of Interest.”