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Anatomy of a Fall
Anatomie d'une chute

Directed by Justine Triet
Produced by David Thion and Marie-Ange Luciani
Written by Justine Triet and Arthur Harari
With: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaïeb, Camille Rutherford, Anne Rotger, and Sophie Fillières
Cinematography: Simon Beaufils
Editing: Laurent Sénéchal
Runtime: 152 min
Release Date: 23 August 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

It's been a long time since the winner of the Cannes Film Festival's top prize was my favorite film of the year, but I'll be surprised if I see another 2023 film more rivetingly original than Justine Triet’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall. The title seems to intentionally recall one of the greatest examples of the genre, Otto Preminger’s 1959 adaptation of Anatomy of a Murder, the novel by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker who wrote under the pen name of Robert Traver. But where that film is so quintessentially American, Anatomy of a Fall is decidedly French. In fact, for those of us whose understanding of the judicial system comes almost entirely from watching Hollywood and British legal thrillers and courtroom dramas, the glimpses into the eccentricities and flat-out "better than we do it" aspects of the French legal system are enough to keep you interested through the picture's two and a half hour runtime.

Sandra Hüller, star of Triet’s 2019 comedy Sibyl, Maren Ade's 2016 critic’s darling Toni Erdmann, and Jonathan Glazer's 2023 Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest, plays Sandra, a German novelist living in France with her French husband and their 11-year-old, visually impaired son. When her husband falls to his death from the attic window of their remote mountain home, Sandra is arrested for his murder and tasked with trying to prove her innocence during a publicly scrutinized trial.

The script by Triet and Arthur Harari, who also wrote Sibyl together, is intricately layered, with each piece of exposition, revelation, and characterization arriving in the most refreshingly organic ways. The cast is flawless, from Hüller, for whom the lead role was written, to the attornies, the witnesses, and the judge (Anne Rotger, whose facial expressions are priceless). One of the most exceptional turns comes from young Milo Machado-Graner as Sandra's son, Daniel, in yet another phenomenal child performance from the last twenty years. Both Sandra and the Judge want to shield Daniel from much of what will be discussed during the trial. However, in a brief but wonderful scene, Daniel brilliantly argues why he should experience the trial first-hand rather than learning about it from TV and social media. So, while we don't watch the trial unfold through Daniel's eyes, he is undoubtedly the audience surrogate. Much of how we understand the proceedings and the concepts of justice explored in the film come through him. Much of what makes the picture so powerful is that this pre-teen kid not only has to deal with the trauma of seeing his mother on trial for possibly murdering his father but also has to watch and listen as the attorneys dissect ever painful aspect of his parent's troubled relationship. Think Kramer vs Kramer if Justin Harvey was present for the courtroom scenes.

The film is at its best in moments of tense conflict, with meticulously crafted dialogue that gets your heart pumping and your mind racing. Some audiences may find Sandra's dialogue too eloquent to be realistic, but think about it: she's a writer, she's German, and she's the type of person who processes everything, including emotions, verbally and cerebrally. Plus, she's arguing, explaining, and defending herself in a foreign tongue  (the use of language in this movie is fascinating). All these personality aspects are not only credible; they're what makes Sandra such a fascinating character. We don't necessarily side with her or believe she's innocent. And much of what we learn over the course of the trial will be perceived differently by different viewers, just as the opposing lawyers interpret things differently. Anatomy of a Fall is the kind of movie you want to revisit, not to spot clues and breadcrumbs dropped by the filmmakers that you missed the first time—everything in this cinematic onion is pealed so perfectly you don't miss a thing—but you'll still want to revisit it to see how brilliantly the ideas and themes are laid out and put forward. It's a masterful screenplay brought to life by incredible talent, both in front and behind the camera (including a Palm Dog Award-winning turn by a Border Collie).

Twitter Capsule:

In the best Palme d'Or winner since Parasite, Sandra Hüller plays a German woman accused of murdering her French husband in Justine Triet’s exquisitely layered and perfectly cast French courtroom drama.