Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

Still rolling along with this year's Best Pic nominees, it's time for another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!

Today's subject is the procedural drama Anatomy of a Fall, from French director Justine Triet, about a woman unexpectedly put on trial after her husband is found dead from a three-story fall out a window.  Did he fall by accident or was he pushed?  The government suspects it was the latter.

Sandra Hüller stars as the wife (coincidentally named Sandra), a famous novelist who lives with her husband Samuel and their visually-impaired son Daniel.  The married couple has a strained marriage, in part due to her infidelity but probably even moreso because of her success as a writer where he failed.  Sandra is being interviewed by a female student when her husband, working in the attic, begins blasting music so loud the interview has to be rescheduled.  Sandra takes a nap while Daniel goes out to walk his dog Snoop, and on his return Daniel finds his father unresponsive and bleeding on the ground.

This sets in motion an investigation in which it feels like the authorities have already determined Sandra's guilt and at the ensuing trial it seems the burden of proof is on her rather than on the prosecution.  In one alarming moment the state's lawyer is actually allowed to present character dialogue from one of her novels as evidence Sandra herself was inclined to murder.  Throughout the trial we're given an increasingly clear picture of a crumbling marriage, leading up to a climactic flashback sequence (via secret recording) where Sandra and Samuel have a fiery conversation that dissolves into a shouting match and worse.  But of course the problem with the prosecution's case is that no one's life can be distilled down to a random five-minute recording, and Sandra insists her husband had become suicidally depressed in recent years, in spite of what his therapist claims.
Caught in the middle of all this is eleven-year-old Daniel (Milo Machado Graner in a stunningly prodigious youth performance), who is a material witness and therefore has to be kept at arm's length from his mother; the court appoints a chaperone to their house to ensure no witness tampering takes place.  Daniel initially maintains his parents' conversation just prior to Samuel's death was perfectly calm, but he later can't be sure where he was standing when he heard it.  

The film is presented in stark realism; in fact there isn't even a background score present, the procedural details and substantial performances left to convey the dramatic heft on their own.  It's a very effective approach that keeps the movie from veering into melodrama and immerses the viewer like a compelling documentary would.

Anatomy of a Fall is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be and the courtroom deck feels SO stacked against Sandra that a few moments aren't quite believable, like when Samuel's therapist begins cross-examining Sandra from the witness stand.  But I think it's meant to convey the inherent misogyny that's plagued society for so many centuries; a woman often has to answer questions and tick boxes a man wouldn't.  At times Sandra seems to be on trial as much for her side romantic entanglements and free-spiritedness as for allegedly killing her husband.  On top of everything, the German-born Sandra is forced to speak French during the trial and is thus unable to convey her side of the story as lucidly as the other side.  These script choices really hammer home the isolation and uphill battle Sandra must fight to clear her name.

The various languages in the film are also used as an emblem of how estranged the married couple has become.  He speaks French, she speaks German, and they meet in the middle with English, but as a result neither of them seems quite at home when they're together.  The age-old theme of men and women speaking different languages is actually conveyed literally.

Anatomy of a Fall is another strong nominee in this year's Best Picture category, a curious blend of legal mystery, courtroom drama and domestic tragedy that focuses squarely on the characters and their frailties, boosted by palpable performances and pacing that leaves you almost dreading a sudden plot twist.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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