‘Anatomy of a Fall’: Huller rises and delivers the best lead actress performance of the year so far

“Anatomy of a Fall” (2023) – “I need you to be precise.  Tell me everything.” – Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud)

Director/co-writer Justine Triet’s courtroom drama, “Anatomy of a Fall”, feels precise in just about every moment.  However, a barrage of facts, figures, explanations, clarifications, and evidence – throughout a 152-minute runtime – cause knotty twists and turns in this absorbing legal rollercoaster, one that rides and rolls through mountains of intimate stress and anxiety in the French Alps.

Very early in the first act, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) falls to his death from the attic window of his and his wife’s (Sandra Huller) towering countryside home.  This tragedy occurs in the middle of a winter day under bright skies, but cloudy contemplations climb with suspicions.  Sandra Voyter (Huller) was the only other person inside the house, so did Samuel slip in a disastrous accident, or did his spouse murder him?

Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari (also Justine’s partner) don’t leave clues leading up to Samuel’s demise, but yes, tension fills the abode during the movie’s opening minutes. 

A student interviews Sandra, a celebrated writer, but Samuel triggers a spiteful act – one that will not be revealed in this review – that deeply embarrasses his wife.  The student and Sandra’s recorded conversation can no longer continue. 

Is the humiliating moment a microcosm of their marriage?     

Sandra suffers from a conflict, either a temporary patch or a years-long battle.

Sandra Voyter (Sandra Huller)

Immediately after Samuel’s deadly descent, the audience doesn’t know how long the couple’s struggles have lingered, but Voyter, her lawyer Renzi, investigators, and a trial divulge the anatomy of a fall…and the anatomy of a marriage. 

Over the next two-plus hours, all eyes in the movie theatre will stare squarely at this new widow, as she firmly denies that she murdered Samuel, but a trial opens.

Sandra is the prime suspect. 

All eyes on the big screen also gaze at Sandra with varying degrees of concern, uncertainty, and straight-up doubt, and this questioning universe also includes her 11-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), a visually impaired little boy.

Daniel was walking his dog Snoop when disaster struck his family, so he wasn’t a direct witness, but the child has a natural basis – and bias – for forming an opinion on his mother’s potential guilt after living with his folks for a decade plus a year.

Meanwhile, Huller gives the best actress performance of the year so far as Ms. Voyter, a woman under an avalanche of pressure – guilty or not guilty – as she faces public scrutiny, intense exchanges in court, and private emotional examinations from Daniel and his newly assigned assistant guardian, Marge (Jehnny Beth).

You can sense Sandra aging 20 years during the constant back and forth between her home and the courthouse. 

It’s impossible to identify Sandra’s guilt or innocence, but she holds everlasting consternation that boils deep and froths to the surface.  Is her internal churn due to a constant push to declare truthful denials or a persistent pull to hide a murderous onus from view?

Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud) and Sandra (Huller)

While Sandra stews, Triet and Harari’s nuanced and gutsy script dives into unanticipated layers of Sandra and Samuel’s marriage, a vast, turbulent pool of emotional waves that could wash away a holy union, either theirs or anyone else’s under similar circumstances.   These break-up breakers expose themselves through discourse in court and between Sandra and Vincent. 

Even though “Anatomy” occasionally relies on visual recreations to piece together the mystery, most of the revelations are driven through conversational means.  Triet and cinematographer Simon Beaufils aren’t required to dazzle with elaborate illustrations, and they don’t, save for the striking eerie contrast of blue skies, white snow, and a dead body.  Instead, Triet’s camera rightly converges on the interior, interpersonal predicament at hand.  She often squarely focuses on Huller, and Voyter faces the fire and attempts to avoid drowning simultaneously, as this critic kept guessing about her guilt and legal fate. 

American audiences may find French court procedures a bit baffling, and one or two plot devices – that appear in legal chambers – feel forced.  Still, these moments drive the mystery, one set at an urban courthouse, an extravagant wooden residence, and during an – otherwise – ordinary, chilly afternoon with one devastating, deadly drop.

Huller and Triet may or may not drop enough hints and tell us everything, but you’ll have to examine the 2023 Cannes Palme d’Or winner – this anatomy of a fall and marriage – to know for sure.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  Justine Triet

Written by:  Justine Triet and Arthur Harari

Starring:  Sandra Huller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, and Antoine Reinartz

Runtime:  152 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: Le Pacte

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