I can name a very short list of actresses who can portray a silver screen character with the level of charisma and ego as Cate Blanchett in the already iconic role of Lydia Tár. That short list has now grown by one. The amazingly talented Sandra Hüller, best known for Toni Erdmann, does not lack for “big dick energy”. After seeing her from a strange distance in The Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer, we can fully grasp her icy, domineering attitude in the wonderful Anatomy of a Fall. It’s a legal thriller by French director Justine Triet (who also co-wrote the screenplay with her partner Arthur Harari).
The movie is another take on the classic procedural dilemma: did a person die by accident or were they killed by their partner?
After falling from the third floor of the chalet he was renovating for his family, Samuel’s teenage son Daniel finds him dead. His wife Sandra, a famous bisexual writer of auto-fiction novels, was asleep during the accident/suicide… or was she?
Police are not convinced by her testimony or her sons. The boy is almost blind in the aftermath of a car crash and his memories are mixed up. Sandra seeks help from an old male friend who happens to be a lawyer (Swann Arnauld) and who is tenderly and quietly in love with her. Even her lawyer, seduced by the German writer married to the French victim, is not sure of her innocence. The movie follows Sandra’s trial from start to end. A trial with so little evidence against her and so open to interpretation soon turns into an examination of Sandra’s life as a woman and a mother.
She is described as an icy, unfaithful, unreliable mother, a “castrating personality”, and a violent lover. She is all of these things to a certain degree and yet something else. Though she isn’t fluent in French, she creates her own narratives and manipulations of the events. Despite remaining difficult to read, she stands up unapologetically for both her son and herself. Meanwhile, despite being a shadow and not the one on trial, the dead man is as sinister as his wife. He aggressively interrupts. He secretely records conversations. He got in a long nasty fight the day before his death.
Hüller is a real show-stopper in the leading role but everyone else in the ensemble is terrific too. That includes Daniel’s dog (played by Messi). The dog is the protagonist of a superbly creative establishing shot inside the house, shot at its eye level).
As a nuanced portrayal of a woman on trial, Anatomy of a Fall has been compared to last year’s French Oscar submission Saint Omer, but the tone is completely different. Triet gives us a brilliant trial with comic moments, like a superb episode of The Good Wife. A great legal drama is one where the more you learn about the victim and the accused, the less certain you are about what really happened.