Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” playing in Competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, begins with an interview between a writer and a student interested in her work. It’s a lighthearted, almost flirty discussion where double entendres are part of a seemingly harmless game. It is pleasurable for Sandra (Sandra Hüller), the writer flattered by the attention, but also for us, the audience, as Triet’s writing always is: casual yet precise, revealing of characters’ personalities but always awake to the degree of performance in their behavior — in short, utterly believable and thrillingly human. But as the film continues, and long past the opening scene, this interview structure never lets up. Every subsequent conversation is in some way an interrogation, every word one more weapon in the arsenal of characters who do not necessarily realize the power they are wielding. The delight of speech remains — increases even — but it soon turns bittersweet, almost perverse.
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This description may make “Anatomy of a Fall” sound extremely serious and intellectually remote — it is important in every review to pick the right words but for this film most of all. Triet, however, is a master of comedy with the confidence to use every tool at her disposal and create breathtaking contrasts and reversals, taking advantage of the full magnitude of her films’ self-imposed stylistic rules without ever breaking them. The interview, a flow of words and interpretations, is quickly interrupted by the loud sound of a cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” blasting from upstairs. It’s an incredible and hilarious scene of an indirect and wordless confrontation (the cover is instrumental!) between Sandra and her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), who remains out of sight, repairing the ceiling of the big mountain house the family lives in. The interview ends, the confused student leaves, and the camera begins to follow Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), the couple’s blind teenage son, as he goes for a walk with his seeing dog. Upon his return, he bumps into the lifeless corpse of his father, lying in the snow with blood at his temple.
What follows the discovery of the body is exactly what you would expect: a police investigation, experts discussing blood splatter and the physics of a falling object, interrogations of the key witnesses, etc. The logic of a criminal case — the attempt to solve it by looking at all the evidence, figuring out the psychology of the people involved, and analyzing their motives and alibis — is inherently thrilling. But the straightforward, no-frills aesthetic and structure of the “Anatomy of a Fall” highlight how banal, repetitive, and even tedious an investigation really is. At the very opposite of, say, David Fincher or the “CSI” series and their love of efficient processes and highly skilled work, Triet’s film is gripping precisely because of the humanity of all involved — be they Sandra, her traumatized son, the forensic team on the scene or the police — which continuously peeps through the coldness of proceedings. Simon Beaufils’ naturalistic color palette and unpretentious cinematography capture the cool rationality of what unfolds and the astonishingly natural and unaffected performances Triet draws from her entire cast. It is through the gap between the two, through the messiness of everyday life and speech, that doubt over Sandra’s innocence soon creeps its way in.
It begins with conflicting testimonies, from her and her son, about when and whether she talked to her husband before his death; it continues with contrasting recreations of the way Samuel might have died. Did he jump from the top floor? Did he accidentally fall? Or did someone give him a hand? Even as it seems science will have the last word — as it were — experts disagree. All will be decided in the courtroom, where forensic analysts will use different words to give different interpretations of the same facts.
Courtroom dramas can sometimes draw attention to the poverty of language and the difficulty of using it to express oneself; it is part of lawyers’ and prosecutors’ job to twist people’s words and make them say things they may not exactly mean. In the case of “Anatomy of a Fall,” however, this semantic dimension is taken to a whole new level with both the accused and the person who has died being writers themselves. Triet wrote the film with her partner, actor and screenwriter Arthur Harari, and they surely drew from their own experience as people who use words to describe and shape their realities even more than the rest of us do. But the film is also about life as a couple — if many usually suffer from too many things unsaid, Sandra and Samuel may have had the opposite problem.
In this context, the blind Daniel is both the worst possible witness (his recollections of what he heard on the day are uncertain) and the best: a son who must know his parents better than anyone else. What he says can make all the difference. Triet’s breathtakingly intelligent and subtly perverse masterpiece takes the long way through the cold and the snow to address, in nuanced but never ambiguous terms, the ineffable and irreducible mystery at the heart of deep relationships — between two partners, between parents and their children, between words and the world. [A+]
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