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Dan Webster reviews "Anatomy of a Fall"

Film still of Swann Arlaud and Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall (2023).
Anatomy of a Fall, Les Films Pelléas/Les Films de Pierre/France 2 Cinéma/Auvergne Rhône-Alpes Cinéma/Neon, 2023.
Film still of Swann Arlaud and Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall (2023).


Almost from their beginning, movies have depended on intense courtroom cases—both fictional and factual—to create great drama.

Think of 12 Angry Men. Of Witness for the Prosecution. Of The Verdict, A Few Good Men, Anatomy of a Murder. Even when we know the outcome, as we do in Judgment at Nuremberg, the intensity that directors such as Stanley Kramer or Robert Mulligan manage to create can feel as thick as the summer air in the small southern-town setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.

French writer-director Justine Triet’s film Anatomy of a Fall isn’t just a courtroom drama, though. Implicit in its storyline are themes of domestic volatility, professional jealousy, lingering blame and resentment, not to mention unfaithfulness and betrayal. It is the blend of all these themes, underscored by a suspicious death that leads to a murder trial, that gives Anatomy of a Fall its inherent power.

And which, by the way, won the top prize—the Palme d’Or—at last May’s Cannes Film Festival.

The suspicious death is that of Samuel (played by Samuel Theis), the husband of the successful novelist Sandra (played by Sandra Hüller). He has fallen from an upper-story window of the mountain cabin that the couple has been renting with their son Daniel (played by Milo Machado-Graner).

It is, in fact, Daniel—just 11 years old, and visually impaired following an accident years before—who discovers Samuel’s body. And, too, it gradually becomes clear that he is important—not only to his parents’ troubled marriage, but to what happens when Sandra ultimately is charged with Samuel’s murder.

Triet, who has made five feature films since 2009, works patiently, crafting scenes that deliver information a little at a time. Never, though, does she provide enough information to make it possible to definitively determine Sandra’s guilt or innocence.

Oh, there are factors that point us in certain directions. It turns out that the accident that caused Daniel’s visual impairment—he was hit by a motorcycle—occurred when the boy was in Samuel’s care. And much of what has gone on between Daniel’s parents is due to Samuel’s sense of guilt and Sandra’s unresolved resentment.

We learn, too, that Samuel—who gave up his career as a teacher—is frustrated at his inability to do what he really wants, which is to write. Sandra, meanwhile, has adapted one of his ideas into her own fiction, which helped fuel her success as a popular novelist.

And then there are the affairs that Sandra has had, partly because Samuel—for his own reasons, guilt among them—had stopped sharing her bed. In fact, the situation just before Samuel’s fatal fall is an interview—which we see play out—between Sandra and a young woman student. An interview that can be seen as flirtatious and that is interrupted by the obnoxiously loud music that Samuel, supposedly working upstairs, insists on playing.

All of this is presented in court to make Sandra look guilty. And the prosecuting attorney (played effectively, if slimily, by Antoine Reinartz) uses it to make a damning case. Sandra’s own defense team, led by an old friend (played by Swann Arlaud), can only point out that the prosecutor’s whole case, being circumstantial at best, is based on the kinds of complications that—if examined under a lens—can be found in pretty much any relationship.

And while Sandra—brilliantly portrayed by Hüller—offers up a reasonable answer for every charge, indeed for every implication, her greatest limitation might be that she’s a German-born woman whose French is so limited that she has to revert to English to defend herself in a French court.

In the end, it is Daniel whose testimony affects the outcome. Yet even then the question of Sandra’s guilt remains elusive. If nothing else, this gives Anatomy of a Fall something in common with many of the past great courtroom dramas: a topic to argue over drinks when the final curtain closes.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for

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