24 Oct 23
When it comes to the truth, there are facts, which are undeniable. But when the details are impossible to establish, all we can do is talk around them – what remains are only words, statements that are true or false, based on subjective experience and therefore impossible to trust fully.
In Anatomy Of A Fall, the intensely original and furiously entertaining Palme d'Or winner from French director Justine Triet, words are wielded like weapons, with life itself as the battlefield. The film's central character, and the heart of its mystery, is in fact a writer – or more precisely two writers.
It all begins with Sandra (the remarkable Sandra Hüller, famous for her turn in Maren Ade's bittersweet comedy Toni Erdmann and Jonathan Glazer's upcoming The Zone Of Interest) in her big house in the French mountains, being interviewed by a literature student about her highly autobiographical novels.
The conversation is interrupted by Sandra's husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), who is upstairs working on the roof and decides to play hip hop at high volume and on a loop, presumably with the sole purpose of stopping the interview. We'll only learn later that Samuel, too, is a writer – or rather was.
Soon after the embarrassed student has gone, the couple's blind son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), returns from a walk with his guide dog and bumps into the corpse of his father in the snow.
Sandra will claim she did not see or hear anything; her son will give confusing statements about what he heard; police will call on experts to establish the cause of death. However, at the end of the day, all that prosecutors and lawyers will have to go on are words – with only one of the two writers still alive to tell the tale. What may look like a standard procedural is therefore soon revealed to be a breathtaking search for the truth hinged on the turn of a sentence, where every expression, every phrase can become ammunition for the other camp.
Triet is one of the most talented writers of dialogue and character working today, an artist perfectly in tune with the interplay between language and behaviour, words and the unsaid, perception and assumption.
Hüller is fascinating as a woman who appears more complex the more we learn about her, but also less and less knowable. One of the most humane characters on screen this year, she is also one of the most terrifying — – if she did kill her husband, what does that say about our judgement?
The film is haunting but also frequently hilarious, especially in its smart, deft wordplay. Anatomy Of A Fall is so compelling and fun, and in such an innovative way, that you may not notice the emotion building up right away. At some point, however, it will hit you like a brick, when words fail a mother talking to her son, or he discloses more than he maybe realises.
Beyond mere witticisms and formal play with language, Anatomy Of A Fall asks if it is ever possible to truly know someone – to trust them beyond any reasonable doubt. Or is loving precisely about taking that leap of faith? In examining the questions, Triet delivers a stone-cold masterpiece.
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