Saturday, July 20, 2024

Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, dissects the slow, vicious implosion of a marriage. The reasons why are the usual suspects: grief, blame and jealousy. But there’s little else usual about Triet’s emotionally eviscerating narrative, which begins with the death of one spouse and, in carefully curated frames, rewinds as the survivor is put on trial for murder.

As the film opens, a writer (Sandra Hüller) sips wine in a rustic chalet amid the snowy white backdrop of the French Alps and attempts to answer the questions of an adoring grad student (Camille Rutherford) who has come to the cozy high to perform an interview. What cuts the Q&A short is the regular blasting of an instrumental version of “P.I.M.P.” by 50 Cent from somewhere above. The intrusive ruckus comes from the writer’s husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), whom we learn is also a writer. Hüller‘s Sandra sees her interviewer dutifully to her car and instead of going upstairs to confront Samuel, decides to take a nap. It’s interrupted shortly by the screams of her eyesight-impaired 11-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who went for a walk with the family dog along a ravine during the interview and returned to find a lifeless Samuel, head cracked and with considerable blood splatter, on the packed snow where the interviewer’s car had been parked. Did he fall, did he jump or was he pushed? Police seek answers, tossing dummy after dummy out the window to reconstruct events. Their findings don’t point to an accident or suicide, so Sandra – the only other one in the house – gets tagged with the murder.

What ensues is a courtroom trial in which the grad student, the son and Samuel, though recorded conversations Sandra was unaware of, are the key witnesses. Things that bubble up are the German-born Sandra’s resentment of being shoehorned into French culture (many times she wants to speak English, but the court, investigators and others insist on French) the result of the French-born Samuel’s reasoning that his ancestral lodge will serve as an Edenic inspiration for their words to flow. The reality is – and Triet uses obvious devices with surprising inventiveness to take us back in time to these moments – prose does not flow, and Samuel resents Sandra for being the more successful writer. Then there’s the matter of who was the more negligent during the accident that greatly dimmed Daniel’s vision, and the trailing fact that Sandra has a favoring for younger women of a certain intellect. The facts of the union, the fall and familial life are told with a guarded hand; “Rashomon”-like reinterpretations roll out as Samuel’s recordings are used by the prosecution to reframe that opening interview as a seduction. Daniel’s allegiances seems to waver and shift as the trial becomes more steeped in the unpleasant details of domestic decay.

Beyond Triet’s masterful orchestration, it’s Hüller and her fellow cast members who take the provocative who-did-it to viscerally resonating highs. Much is asked of Hüller, as the camera regularly hangs close on her emotive face and its high, creased forehead and distinctively  pronounced nose. She delivers, scene in and scene out. It’s a film-defining performance, and her conspirators are up to the task too, especially the young Graner, who portrays Daniel as vulnerable and unsettled; Theis, who delivers a seething husband looking to pin his anger and frustration on another; and Swann Arlaud, beguiling and David Byrne-impish as Sandra’s patient and sympathetic defense attorney. The culmination is a slow burn, with many muffled explosions along the way that pull you into the trapped souls – who has more self-esteem issues than writers? – looking for a release, creative, sexual or otherwise.

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.