You Can’t Handle the Truth
By Adam Nayman
Anatomy of a Fall
Dir. Justine Triet, France, NEON
Reviewing Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1989, Pauline Kael noted the story’s pivotal relationship between a shady ophthalmologist and a visually impaired rabbi: “That going blind,” she added, “is quite a touch!” The comment (and its attached exclamation mark) was an attempt at undercutting the ever-loftier pretensions of a filmmaker evidently trying to move on from his “early, funny” movies; the question was whether Kael’s simply perceiving a “controlling metaphor” in Crimes and Misdemeanors was tantamount to somehow seeing through it, or if her dismissive sarcasm represented its own form of myopia.
Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), the 11-year-old boy at the center of Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, is blind as the result of an accident stemming from parental neglect; he’s also the star witness in a sensational trial investigating whether his mother, Sandra (Sandra Hüller), killed his father, Samuel (Samuel Theis), by pushing him out of the attic window of their family chalet in the French Alps. To say that Anatomy a Fall (co-written by Arthur Harari) features a few plot points that Kael, or a similarly sardonic critic, might deem “quite the touch” is an understatement (!), and yet either in spite of its elaborate contrivances or in sync with them—and also the shrewd, pleasurable showmanship with which they are deployed—Anatomy of a Fall emerged out of this year’s Cannes as a semi-surprising but ultimately satisfying winner of the Official Competition. It is the fourth consecutive Palme d’or represented in North America by the U.S. distributor NEON and the third in four years displaying certain hallmarks of the polished, gentrified-genre mode that has become the festival circuit’s stock in trade.
These last two points are not coincidental: at a moment when critics and film-cultural commentators are apt (fairly or not) to evaluate distribution companies and their perceived house styles as much as the actual movies they release—one obvious case in point being the bristling, skeptical reception of Ari Aster’s A24-financed Beau Is Afraid—NEON’s knack for reading and riding the art-house zeitgeist demands exegesis, even if Triet’s film, like Triangle of Sadness (2022) and Titane (2021) before it, is unlikely to scale the dizzying crossover-hit heights of Parasite (2019). Is it too cute to suggest that if you took those other three movies, ground them down to their essence—caustic class critique (Triangle); parent-child pathos (Titane); and psychological warfare and subterfuge (Parasite)—and infused them through a stainless steel-French press, you’d get Anatomy of a Fall? Probably, and yet this hybrid courtroom drama-slash-psychological thriller is so conducive for both chin-stroking critical contemplation and a certain—albeit highly rarefied—form of crowd-pleasing that it could just as easily have been engineered in a lab as crafted as a work of art; the tension between such mere (if excellent) engineering (i.e., effectiveness) and art (i.e., some meaning within or beyond its well-wrought boundaries) is what makes Anatomy of a Fall worth reckoning with.
Triet, whose last film was the twisty, quasi-trashy drama Sybil (2019), shows her skill in an opening sequence that, thanks to the echo chamber of social media, has already been ratified as a classic: after inviting a journalist to interview her about her literary success in a cozy living room setting, Sandra finds conversation impossible due to the wall-shaking volume of Samuel’s home-renovation playlist one floor above, which, strangely, consists of a steel-drum instrumental played on repeat. The glee taken by mostly North American journalists in recognizing—and reporting—that the voracious earworm melody is derived from 50 Cent’s 2003 top 10 hit “P.I.M.P.” could be taken less as non sequitur than a byproduct of what cinema studies academics have been theorizing (and fretting) about now for decades as “transnational” aesthetics; ditto the detail, which like the rest of the dialogue, is barely audible in the mix, that Sandra, Samuel, and Daniel’s trusty, caregiving dog is named Snoop (whose real-world namesake contributed a verse to the original track).
That Triet initially wanted to use Dolly Parton’s scorching, heartbroken don’t-stand-by-my-man belter “Jolene” as her stuck needle-drop not only shores up the sense of a French production gesturing towards the U.S. but also clarifies the kind of filmmaker Triet is: a sly entertainer trying to drop interpretive hints any and everywhere she can. For instance: later in the movie, when the German-born Sandra is on the stand—being cross-examined in a combination of French and English (again, a detail perfectly suited to transnational viewership), the prosecutor tries to argue that Samuel’s use of “P.I.M.P.” to noise-bomb his wife’s interview was a form of sarcastic protest against her habit of Sapphic philandering. (The lawyer should be a film critic.) While you wouldn’t want to lose the wry conceptual joke—explicated in the ensuing dialogue— that “P.I.M.P.” loses its sexist undertones when you remove the lyrics altogether, “Jolene” would have probably worked even better—for the lawyer, and the movie—to infuse the general atmosphere of implication and insinuation.
Such cleverness, as practiced by the characters and also their creator, is the real subject of Anatomy of a Fall, which alternates tricked-up narrative gimmicks (I think the blind child witness recalls nothing so much as…Malice ) with passages claiming Cassavetes-ian rawness—and sometimes enfolds one within the other, as in the long, duly lauded flashback sequence where Sandra and Samuel’s long-simmering domestic detente explodes into the kind of unrepentant mutual spleen-venting that makes the participants seem capable of anything. The reason we—and the film’s other characters, including Daniel—are privy to the scene is because Samuel secretly recorded the conversation, supposedly as part of his own new writing project: an explanation that mollifies the judge and jury even as it barely passes dramaturgical muster. In a movie that spends most of its first hour playing up the baffling mystery of its primal (murder?) scene—and bringing on character after character to explain why the details of Samuel’s death resist forensic analysis—the sudden plunking down of a sequence that seems to provide Sandra with new reserves of enraged motivation (and also perhaps Samuel with a pretense for suicide, as per the defense’s case) isn’t stranger-than-fiction—it’s simply unlikely. And it is not made less so by having the characters comment on its unlikeliness, any more than having them articulate philosophical ideas around the unknowability of human nature brings us closer to profundity. (Just ask Woody Allen, who’d surely enjoy Anatomy of a Fall insofar as he’s admitted to lying awake at night dreaming of the perfect murder.)
If all of this seems a bit ungenerous to a movie that is excellently well-shot, edited, and acted from beginning to end, it may be because Anatomy of a Fall is perched on the edge of being the kind of movie I like very much. Namely, that would be a film that uses trashy genre tropes to access something serious, but ultimately shows its hand as something else: a movie that acts as if—but is not actually—above using those tactics. Given the scenario of a best-selling author accused of murder—and whose tendency to filter aspects of her personal life through her writing makes her seem all the more guilty—it’s impossible to not think of Basic Instinct (1992), which also played in Cannes, but outside of Competition, and decades before Verhoeven’s ingenious, molecular fusion of Hollywood gloss and exploitation gristle achieved critical respectability (and indeed laid a template for the Julia Ducournaus and Bong Joon-hos of the world to reap prizes).
There is probably no jury in the world (of regular citizens or film critics) who would say Basic Instinct is a “smarter” movie than Anatomy of a Fall. And yet because Verhoeven is a completely shameless artist (a compliment), his film’s quasi-Hitchockian ridiculousness has a certain integrity, while Triet, whose construction is self-conscious in a different (and more cautious) way, keeps trying to have her cake and eat it too: to insist simultaneously on the kind of realism whose specificity becomes universal and to keep the pot boiling over for two-and-a-half hours. Yes, these are fine and subjective distinctions: [exhales cigarette smoke] what are you going to do, charge me with auteurism?
Hüller, it should be said, has been perfectly cast in a role that both exploits and complicates her essential flintiness, and her performance here is, in its way, as iconic as Sharon Stone’s. When Samuel refers to his wife on the recording as a “monster,” it’s not only a cue to appreciate the multitudes of Hüller’s acting—which touches on monstrousness as well as other, more empathetically shaded qualities—but to consider which cultural narratives about men and women and marriage we find the most persuasive, and also which ones make us uncomfortable (a thematic matrix that recalls the Verhoeven-inflected Gone Girl .) Instead of hyperbolizing and satirizing noir-tinged misogyny like Fincher or Verhoeven, Triet’s instinct is to scathingly deconstruct it, using the seemingly minor but increasingly crucial character of the government prosecutor—a close-cropped and flat-brilliant Antoine Reinartz—to suggest a more systemic skepticism towards female agency and independence: a critique that’s subsequently puzzlingly, or maybe productively, at odds with certain implied narrative outcomes.
Implication is everything in Anatomy of a Fall, and all that coyness ultimately congeals and hardens into less than the sum of its parts. Without treading too far into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Triet makes it almost impossible to “spoil” the movie, period—not unlike the Woody Allen of Crimes and Misdemeanors, she wants to make it clear in the end that it’s less about what happened than what it means—an ostensible openness to interpretation that is its own sort of trap. The final act swerve that opens up this pathway towards contemplation is very smartly handled in that it springs logically from the established psychology of a major character, and is even formally rigorous; Triet understands the difference between having characters play things close to the vest and being honest with her audience. And yet it’s also predictable, not only in terms of what’s revealed but also how it uses its thin sliver of ambiguity to poke the audience: not content to simply end her movie with a question mark, Triet places her own punctuation in italics.
To return to Crimes and Misdemeanors, the line that has always stuck with me the most is Martin Landau’s Judah Rosenthal affably (and, in context, monstrously) telling Allen’s failed-director character Cliff Stern that if he wanted a happy ending, he should watch a Hollywood movie—a line that somehow implicates the filmmaker alongside his characters and his audience. Whether or not Allen’s truth-teller shtick (then or now) grates, it’s at least clear what kind of movie he doesn’t want to make; ditto Verhoeven, who might be flattered by the (conscious? accidental? does it matter?) riff on Basic Instinct’s final shot late in Anatomy of a Fall: had the camera moved down and completed the quotation I would have probably cheered out loud at the press screening. As for Triet, she’s a very good filmmaker whose control over her material belies a certain indecisiveness, resulting in a movie that, for all its deft touches, doesn’t leave you with much to hold on to.