Witness for the Prosecution: Triet Beguiles with Knotty Crime Procedural
Justine Triet reunites with several of her Sibyl (2019) collaborators on her best film to date, Anatomy of a Fall, including Arthur Harari as her co-writer and lead star Sandra Hüller, the latter giving an exceptional performance as a woman accused of her husband’s murder. Its title an homage to the 1958 bestseller by Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (published under the pseudonym Robert Travers), adapted in 1959 by Otto Preminger, Triet balances an exceptional amount of information and moving figures as a prologue to a frustrating courtroom procedural. While the actual circumstances are technically left a bit ambiguous, as her lawyer informs her, the purpose of the trial is not about the pursuit of truth rather than it is an occasion to maintain her innocence and prove there’s another reasonable explanation for her husband’s death. Not without certain moments of levity, Hüller is captivating as a woman forced to defend her life and relationship despite a catty prosecutor’s attempts to reinterpret the circumstantial evidence.
Sandra (Hüller) is a successful German author living in a remote chalet outside of Grenoble with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their eleven-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who is blind. She’s giving an interview to a student, but they’re interrupted by Samuel blasting an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” on repeat. Sandra explains her husband is working on re-modeling the home to turn into a rental property and they will have to continue the interview at a later date. Daniel takes their dog for a walk as the student leaves. When he returns, he discovers his father’s lifeless body outside, who appears to have fallen from the top floor of the chalet. The police are suspicious and an autopsy cannot determine if the death is accidental. A bruise on Sandra’s arm, some unexplainable blood spatter and a mysterious conversation Samuel recorded leads to her indictment. Dispatching her friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud) who happens to be a lawyer, Sandra finds herself facing murder charges, with only her son as the other viable witness.
Triet and Harari take their time in establishing a heavily detailed strategy in the various revelations of the scenario. The ambiguity of the situation justifies Sandra’s indictment, for there are simply too many ways for which to interpret the obscured information we’re privy to. The audience, much like the jury, find themselves in the same place of ignorance. Sandra’s detachment could suggest all kinds of things, though she seems quite adamant her husband was not suicidal, nor would he have chosen such a discourteous method considering their son was on the premises. And yet, we seem to forget the child’s blindness negates some of this supposed propriety. The only objective witness is the aptly named dog, Snoop, and Triet focuses on the gaze of the canine, whose body is eventually used as a mechanism to prove her innocence to both her son and the judiciary system.
The plot coagulates with a variety of tangential details, such as an enjoyable Swann Arnaud’s Vincent being a past romantic admirer (though the scrappy Saadia Bentaïeb steals most of the courtroom jibes as the other member of Sandra’ defense team). The meticulousness of the courtroom drama draws comparisons to something like Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (2022), but Triet gravitates towards various moments of flippancy, often thanks to Simon Beufils (Knife+Heart, 2018) cinematography, employing a variety of zooms and pans to emphasize visual reactions. Antoine Reinartz plays his role to the hilt as a snippy, vindictive prosecutor who attempts to hold Sandra’s own body of work against her, deepening our cultural obsession with dissecting where truth ends and fiction begins in both art and life. The argument begins to take on a semblance of an academic reboot of Basic Instinct (1992).
But the infrastructure holding everything together is another expertly realized performance from Sandra Hüller, navigating between English, French, and German, forced to defend and rationalize her way of life in ways no one would appreciate, much less able to articulate as passionately and eloquently as she does here. If indeed her husband did commit suicide, there’s a thick aura of resentment Sandra must keep at bay, though she is called out for it and forced to vocalize a more sanitary rationalization for an animosity she can’t completely hide. The denouement is an agonizing argument Samuel recorded without her knowledge the day before his death, played out for the courtroom to examine as evidence. What starts out like a familiar griping session between a long married couple escalates into violence over professional jealousies, financial problems, and the age old dragon of infidelity.
Exhausting rather than sensational, Anatomy of a Fall is the kind of hyper-articulate cinema still vibrant in French filmmaking and all but extinct in most contemporary offerings of English language cinema. Similar in approach to her 2013 debut Age of Panic, Triet’s latest solidifies her stance as one of France’s impressive contemporary filmmakers.
Reviewed on May 21st at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival – Competition.