Moving Pictures
Oct 23, 2023, 06:27AM

French Falls

Anatomy of a Fall is a gripping French courtroom drama with a marked affection for American pop culture.

Anatomy of a fall cannes custom 677310d4f9219b221154d99206c40220c5d6759a s1100 c50.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

The French film Anatomy of a Fall brings together fascinating contrasts. It’s highbrow enough that it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but its plot wouldn’t be out of place in a low-budget Netflix thriller. Some of its structure also resembles the sort of screenplays Joe Eszterhas used to write in the 1990s, but with less sensationalism or sex. And between its repeated use of a version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” and a dog named “Snoop,” this French film has a surprising affection for American hip-hop.

Anatomy of a Fall was directed by the French filmmaker Justine Triet, who made a film in 2016 called In Bed With Victoria, which I loved—even before it featured a scene in which a dog testified in court. Anatomy of a Fall also prominently features a dog, although the animal never makes it to the courtroom.

The new film is part artsy character study, and part legal procedural, but all of it works well, buoyed by a powerhouse performance from Sandra Hüller. It also shows that the French court system, at least as presented here, is much more conducive to an exciting legal drama than its American counterpart.

Set in Grenoble, in the French Alps, Anatomy of the Fall concerns a couple named Sandra and Samuel (Huller and Samuel Theis); she’s a famous novelist and he’s a not-so-famous one, who live in a French chateau with their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), who was partially blinded in an accident.

The two have a strained relationship, exemplified when Samuel, from his attic office, loudly blasts an acoustic cover of the 50 Cent song to interrupt a meeting Sandra is holding. Then, about 10 minutes in, Samuel’s found dead, having fallen from the attic to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Sandra’s arrested for his murder, most of the rest of the film is set in a French courtroom- where, the defendant and witness are allowed to testify at the same time, and have arguments with one another. I’m not sure if that’s any more likely to ensure justice than in the American system, but either way it’s an ingenious way to ensure tension. French actor Swann Arlaud, who strongly resembles L.A. Kings-era Wayne Gretzky, capably plays Sandra’s lawyer.

The film’s best scene is an argument between the couple, that we’re shown as its audio is played in the courtroom. It’s a strong performance from Huller—best known to me as the daughter in the great Toni Erdmann—that finds another gear in that scene, which recalls that Sopranos episode where Tony and Carmela hashed out the problems in their marriage. The fight touches on everything, from infidelity to gender roles to their sons’ accident to what language they should be speaking.

(Anatomy of a Fall, while a French film set in France with a French director, has the characters mostly speaking English in the non-courtroom scenes. There’s a plot reason for this: She’s German, he’s French, they used to live in England but have moved to his French hometown. This may be why it wasn’t chosen as France’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry.)

Most watching the film will wonder whether Sandra’s guilty, whether she’ll beat the charges, or some twist ending is coming. Much like in old Eszterhas-penned thrillers like Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct, facts are introduced throughout to make her look more guilty or less guilty.


Register or Login to leave a comment