Cannes 2023 Review: ANATOMY OF A FALL, Underwhelming Palme d'Or Winner
Sandra Hüller stars in a courtroom drama, directed by French filmmaker Justine Triet.
Legal dramas seem to be in fashion on the big screen in France.
After last year’s acclaimed Saint Omer from Alice Diop, we had not one but two of them at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Director’s Fortnight sidebar had Cédric Kahn’s The Goldman Case, while the official selection hosted Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, her fourth film and second consecutive in the Cannes Competition.
One senses legal dramas are here to stay, as they are winning serious hardware at award ceremonies. Saint Omer was runnerup at last year’s Venice Film Festival, but Anatomy of a Fall took home the big one at Cannes, the coveted Palme d’Or for Justine Triet, only the third female director to win the prize, and fifth overall woman, if we count the spurious Palme d’Or awarded to actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos alongside director Abdellatif Kechiche for 2013’s Blue Is The Warmest Color.
Anatomy of a Fall is something of a departure for Triet, as her previous films all had veins of comedy running through romantic-dramedy-like constructs. There’s no arch comedy to be found here; the courtroom narrative is played completely straight, too straight, some might grumble.
It concerns German novelist Sandra (German star Sandra Hüller) living in Grenoble, France with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), visually impaired 10-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), and their pet dog. Samuel suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances, his dead body discovered in front of their home, spread-eagled, with a deep wound on his head and blood everywhere. The default conclusion might be that he suffered a fall from the attic window above but Sandra, nevertheless, is accused of his murder and must defend herself in a trial that occupies nearly the length of the film.
If that sounds like awfully thin material for the next exemplar of world cinema, that proves to be the case. In Hollywood, legal dramas are not making a comeback in cinemas because they are all on our TV screens, in the form of dime-a-dozen TV shows like Law & Order, spin-offs, and what seems like hundreds of other law enforcement and legal procedurals and even reality shows.
Triet has stated her intentions to consciously rid her film of such comparisons but she’s only partially successful. Anatomy of a Fall is very much televisual in its content, aesthetic, and sensibilities, and seems ill-suited to be the flag bearer for theatrical “cinema”. It’s Damages with a master's degree, but it’s in that same vein nonetheless.
All the stale conventions and expected twists and turns of the “legal drama” are deployed with dispiriting inevitability: the suddenly discovered piece of evidence, the hostile witness, the last-minute reversal of a key person’s testimony, the speechifying, dramatic final statements. It’s stunning that Triet, a talented and provocative voice, could deliver something so templatized.
One only need look at her previous films to see what a curious, searching filmmaker she is, happy to train her sights on the messiness of human life. Everything in Anatomy of a Fall is filmed with studied competence – the reenactment of the “crime” with dummies, the mudslinging by prosecution and defense attorneys, the niceties of courtroom decorum, and so forth – but none of it reveals, enlightens, or edifies.
It isn’t that Triet finds herself confronted with the constraints of the “legal drama”; there is plenty of room in this tired old genre to challenge the audience. Saint Omer, mentioned above, illuminated the very limits of the Western legal systems and posited that the rigid rationality of such institutions was incapable of handling the subjective human experience of all peoples. Anatomy of a Fall does not grace us with anything so stirring, though it does complicate its standard legal plot with some additinal elements. Chief among them is creating a towering feminist figure at its center, in the form of Sandra Hüller.
Hüller, a mainstay in the pantheon of great world cinema actors ever since her breakout role in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, consistently elevates scenes with her flinty humanity. People might seek to cast her as this year’s equivalent of a Tár-like figure (played by Cate Blanchett), a protean alpha female that dwarfs the world around them. It is hard to argue that this portrayal reaches that level of complexity or thespian execution but nevertheless brings credit to Hüller’s very specific talents.
She is the more successful person in her marriage, wealthier, smarter, and more influential, and there is considerable discussion in court of this status quo destroying her marriage and giving her a motive to off her husband. The much-discussed lengthy “fight scene” between her and her husband – a lacerating, ruinous argument – is a genuine highlight and represents the most credible scene of marital strife on our screens in some time. It certainly improves upon the entirely bogus but inexplicably acclaimed similar scene between Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.
An addtional element that is paid plenty of lip service but fails to deliver is the question of language and how it affects the prospect of justice. Sandra is German but is being tried in a French court in French, a language she is not entirely comfortable in. She often resorts to English, and large swaths of the film are played in English, but this device of the truth getting lost or muddied in translation is not given any meaningful substance. It is ultimately just another element to detract from the contrivances of the main legal plot.
The Palme d’Or win does not doom Anatomy of a Fall with lofty expectations, as we hope audiences will give the film a fair chance based on its own merits. Crimes stories are raking up a storm on streaming services and perhaps audiences will wish to see a more sophisticated version on the big screen too. Triet would deserve any such success and exposure that comes her way and we’ll once again be awaiting her next feature, even though we feel that this film, while not quite "a fall", does represent a stumble.
Anatomy Of A Fall won the Palme d’Or at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be released in US theaters by Neon.