Anatomy of a Fall: Seeing and Believing

<em>Anatomy of a Fall: </em>Seeing and Believing

The first thing to drop, in Justine Triet’s film Anatomy of a Fall (2023), is a dog’s rubber ball. Down, down, down a flight of stairs it bounces, closely watched by the camera, before being snatched up by its owner, Snoop, a border collie with bright, human eyes. We are in a chalet high in the French Alps, near Grenoble. Outside, it’s late winter, bald patches of ground poking through the snow. Inside, the atmosphere is warm, cozy; you can practically smell something bubbling on the stove. Two women are sitting together: the German novelist Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller)—who lives in the house with her French husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), and their eleven-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner)—and a graduate student who has come to ask Sandra about her work. The student finds Sandra’s books troubling. The author uses her own life as material, daring the reader to guess at what’s true and what’s not. “Do you think one can only write from experience?” the student wants to know. Suddenly, their interview is put to an end by the unseen Samuel, who begins to blast music at an earsplitting volume from somewhere upstairs. Sandra tells her guest that they’ll have to make another time to talk, but that doesn’t come to pass. The same afternoon, Samuel is found outside the chalet, dead from a fall. When the women next meet, it’s in a courtroom, where Sandra is standing trial for her husband’s murder.

I first saw Anatomy of a Fall at a critics’ screening—an apt setting for a film that is all about the limits of other people’s judgment. What do we see when we look at another person’s life? What, for that matter, do we see when we look at our own? In the case of Samuel’s death, circumstantial evidence is all that the jury has to go on, and Triet puts her viewers in the same occluded position. She doesn’t show us the moment of the fall—how teasing, that shot of the rubber ball!—only its terrible discovery, as Daniel, who has been out walking Snoop, stumbles upon his father’s body splayed in the snow. The boy has a visual impairment, the result of an accident that damaged his optic nerve when he was four years old. He uses his hands and ears to tell him things his eyes can’t, which raises the government investigators’ suspicions. He trusts his senses, but can they?

The few facts that do exist serve merely as fodder for more argument. During the trial, two forensics experts wage interpretive battle with each other over evidence of blood splatter and blunt force trauma. Clearly, Samuel was bashed in the head and pushed to his death, one says. Not at all, the other counters; he flung himself from the window and hit his head on the metal shed below. To prove her theory, the latter expert presents grotesque footage of a reenactment that she has staged at the chalet using a dummy: a film within a film, as blunt and definitive as Triet’s is subtle and mysterious.

Legal thrillers often hinge on a shocking moment of revelation, as the clarity of the courtroom thrusts hidden truths into the light. That is what happens in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, the film to which Triet pays homage with her choice of title. But Anatomy of a Fall is not a classic courtroom drama, in part because a French trial looks very different from an American one. There are no cries of “Objection, Your Honor!,” no furious bouts of cross-examination. Stranger still, for an American audience, is the fact that a French defendant has no right to silence and can, in fact, be called on to speak at any time. This turns out to be a particular challenge for Sandra, who feels uncomfortably imprecise in French and resorts to English—the linguistic middle ground in which her relationship with Samuel took place—as she is pushed to explain herself, her husband, and their marriage.

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