Wednesday 15 November 2023

Nobody knows: "Anatomy of a Fall"

The French writer-director Justine Triet has dipped a toe into courtroom drama before, while concluding her 2016 film
In Bed with Victoria. There, as befitted a screwball comedy composed along recognisably Hawksian lines, the court filled up with furred and feathered friends: it was the punchline to a robust gag, a final loosing of chaos. Triet's latest Anatomy of a Fall largely resists such animal husbandry in favour of interrogating an even more compelling subject: human behaviour. Over two and a half hours, Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari lay out (and sometimes scatter) before us circumstances and clues pertaining to a mysterious death in the mountains of Grenoble: that of a sometime writer, Samuel (Samuel Theis), who either tumbled to his doom while attempting repairs in the attic of his chalet retreat or was pushed by somebody, possibly his exasperated novelist wife Sandra (Sandra Hüller). Like any real-world case worth its salt, Trier's (entirely fictional) drama has caught the popular imagination: after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes this summer, the film has gone on to become both a critical talking point and a notable hit at a moment when arthouse crossover successes have been thin on the ground. Yet it's a deeply odd sort of film to have become a hit: not at all a murder-mystery, and not an investigative procedural in the conventional understanding of that term, which is to say a work that ushers the viewer towards easy, comforting resolution. Triet and Harari have presented us with as much of a puzzle as the case the film gets (and gets us) caught up in. Anatomy of a Fall is plainly one of the movies of 2023 - but what is it, exactly?

Here's where I can offer the one straightforward answer Triet's film led me towards: it's the most artfully constructed Rorschach blot to have come along in ages, one of very few films this awards season that will leave an audience of 500 with 500 competing responses and theories. The first major clue is the film's relentlessly shifting point-of-view. We start embedded with the grieving family - the sobbing wife and mother, trying to hold it together for the sake of heartbroken son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) - but as the case nears court, Triet plugs us into live media feeds in a way that suggests someone stepping back, seeking objectivity; she also cuts away to Sandra's lawyer (Swann Arlaud), obliged to deal with a client vacillating between the frosty and the flirty. Everything is left in play here. For a long while - for most of the running time - it appears as if Triet and Harari have agreed on a strict no-flashbacks rule, but then we get flashbacks all the same; there is no one line of approach - as 99% of procedurals settle into - but an openness to all approaches simultaneously. For starters, the dialogue flicks freely between English, French and German; the camera, meanwhile, abruptly shifts position mid-scene - in places, as if torn hurriedly from its own moorings - to reveal hitherto unseen parties, redirect viewer focus, or gesture towards some form of effect, as when it frantically slides back and forth in front of the partially blind Daniel as he takes the stand for the first time. (A further wrinkle: this is one of those uniquely French trials that often resembles a free-for-all, with opposing lawyers bounding around the room like Hamlet and Laertes at the RSC and even minor functionaries encouraged to interrupt at any juncture.) 

The most fraught post-screening conversations will naturally hinge on the issue of culpability for Samuel's death, but I suspect - and I suspect Triet and Harari were fully aware of this - even these will depend on where you stand on the current state of play in the battle of the sexes (and whether you believe in such a yellowing concept in the first place). Is Sandra self-absorbed, self-contained or merely self-effacing? Are we swayed by the grasping, faltering French she's obliged to use in court, very different from Hüller's steely mastery of no-nonsense German? There are legal precedents for this roomier framing: Steven Bochco's terrific Murder One on TV, and more recently Dominik Moll's expert The Night of the 12th, though even that film moved towards a very concrete conclusion, albeit one that insisted there are some cases that can never be fully resolved in a manner we might prefer. At every stage, Anatomy of a Fall leaves itself open to interpretation: what it inspires is the respectable arthouse variation of that grubby conspiratorial thinking that has taken root on the Internet these past few years. Triet and Harari offer a fur-lined rabbit hole for us all to fall down, clutching to whatever flavour truffle chips the Picturehouse currently has in stock.

Might it irritate, this absence of selectivity, this refusal of certainty? Again, I suspect this will vary on a viewer-by-viewer basis, dependent on how much closure you need from your movies, and how much work you're prepared to do to reconstruct and reevaluate this narrative in your head. (You are being tasked, in effect, with the job of summation these 150 minutes largely reject.) The thought did strike me that the details of this case ultimately matter far less than that framing: that this is one of several cold cases Triet could have refused to tie in a neat bow before us. Founded on one of the most densely written screenplays of recent times - forever introducing new evidence, further complication - those details are precisely articulated, however, and the whole especially well acted, doubly so given that these performers couldn't have known which camera was on them, and what Triet's endgame was going to be in the edit. Open to everything, including opacity, the actors successfully occupy any given position in any given scene, and convey at least as much innocence as guilt. (Even the family's collie - Messi as Snoop - is astonishing in his big scenes towards the end.) 

These characters do emerge as something more than case studies in a thesis, better rounded for being caught inside and outside the courtroom, for being observed both in carefully rehearsed flashback and jittery present moment, apparently improvising their way towards some contingent and tentative approximation of the truth. I'm not sure the film is ever as profound or searing a retooling of courtroom norms as Alice Diop's Saint Omer, which may be the movie of 2023: to some degree, the plot finally sticks at the level of intellectual exercise, a writers' problem or writers' tiff. (Triet and Harari insert a nice, self-mocking gag amid the closing statements: "There were too many words in this trial.") But it does feel like a substantial dramatic achievement, not least for slipping a multitude of questions into our pockets for us to mull as we gather our belongings and fumble our way back towards the foyer lights. How on earth can we ever really establish the facts of a matter when we weren't physically present, and those at the centre of it are so clearly flawed and fallible human beings? See Anatomy of a Fall, and pray you don't get jury duty for the next one thousand years.

Anatomy of a Fall is now playing in selected cinemas.

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