It’s in Anatomy of a Fall’s second scene when the titular fall happens. Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), a visually impaired boy returns home from a walk with his guide dog when he discovers his father, Samuel (Samuel Theis) lying dead in the snow after supposedly falling off the balcony. He calls for his mother and a frazzled and frantic Sandra (Sandra Hüller) comes running down the chalet steps.
What follows in the next two and a half hours is what makes co-writer and director Justine Triet’s film so gripping. Instead of a loud and melodramatic domestic setting, we get an engaging courtroom drama that uses evidence and testimony to dissect the couple’s troubled marriage. With the help of a former flame who is also a lawyer (Swann Arlaud), Sandra navigates through the French legal system trying to prove that her husband’s murder was a suicide.
Triet decides to peel back the layers of Sandra and Samuel’s marriage by showing us the entire investigative process through the former’s eyes. We see multiple reenactments and scientific trials, like a test examining what Daniel heard that day before he left or dummies being thrown off the chalet balcony. The most damning piece of evidence is a recorded argument between Samuel and German Sandra. Both writers, though the latter is more successful, Samuel would record his life for future inspiration. When the tape is played in court, we get our only true flashback where the two argue in the mutually agreed upon English. There, Sandra’s reliability as a narrator is questioned, leading the audience to examine her culpability.
Triet’s direction brings out the naturalism in Hüller’s performance. She doesn’t condemn her leading character for her past transgressions, though everyone else does. Hüller’s depiction isn’t exactly sympathetic but the way she takes a beat to think about her answers and her at times callous delivery breathes life into her character.
Milo Machado-Graner gives a layered and moving performance as Samuel and Sandra’s son. Caught up in the trial and leaning towards his mother’s guilt, Machado-Graner works in little ways to sewn in his character’s doubts from the way he asks a question to how wide his eyes are.
Cinematographer Simon Beaufils keeps a documentary style to his shots. At multiple points, still photographs are shown of their past life as a couple. Music is used at a minimum to keep the scenes as realistic as possible. It’s details like this that capture just how methodical and cohesive Triet is as a director. Combined with Hüller’s mesmerizing performance, Anatomy of a Fall is one of the year’s best.
Anatomy of a Fall expands to more theaters, including DC, on Oct. 27. Watch the trailer below.