Like all awards, the Palme D’Or can be a mixed blessing. While it has heralded the arrival of many classics (Pulp Fiction, The Third Man, and Parasite, and now Anatomy of a Fall), the top prize at Cannes also gives a level of expectation that can be unrealistic.
This year’s winner, the French drama Anatomy of a Fall, arrives in cinemas this week with the bar set very high. Sandra Hüller (2016’s Toni Erdmann) plays Sandra, a German writer living in a chalet in the snowy mountains of Grenoble in Southern France with her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and young son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner). While working on the loft of their home, Samuel falls to his death, discovered by Daniel after walking the family dog.
Sandra is thrown into a very public court case, where fragments of her personal life are examined to ascertain whether Samuel jumped, or was pushed. With only a couple of settings and a handful of key characters, director Justine Triet constructs a moral maze that is far more than a whodunit. Anatomy of a Fall delves into our interpretation of truth, and how small snapshots of someone can be drawn out of context to bring judgement on an entire life.
Like 2010s hit Gone Girl, you may find yourself going back and forth as to what you think really happened. It’s fun to play along, piecing together the facts as they are presented and coming up with your own guess. However, through clever editing and subtle trickery, Triet asks questions that are less easy to answer. Does a person’s sexuality, work, or acquaintances add up to them being able to commit murder? On the other hand, are they entirely innocent if their behaviour contributed to a suicide?
There are legal struggles, but also human ones, with the courtroom becoming a messy battlefield where noone wins but the audience. Alongside superb direction and dialogue are the performances: Hüller’s portrayal of Sandra is of a flawed person, someone whose morality leaves just enough grey area to maintain doubt. She’s met with incredible support, including Swann Arlaud as her defence lawyer, an old flame who isn’t sure of his client’s innocence.
Antoine Reinartz is a flurry of righteous indignation as the prosecutor, while the third belongs to young Milo Machado-Graner, giving Daniel a maturity beyond his years while also showing the fear of a child who doesn’t entirely understand what’s happened. Equal parts thrilling and exhausting, Anatomy of a Fall is a magnificent film that lives up to its accolades.
Rightly considered among the best of the year, this is a film that will provoke heated discussions long after the credits have rolled.
Anatomy of a Fall is on general release now