A Fall, A Leap

Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

A black and white illustration of a scene in the courtroom from the film Anatomy of a Fall
illustration by Rachel Merrill

“A couple is a kind of a chaos.”

Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall (2023) is interspersed with lines like this one, phrases that roll their profundity into terse simplicity. It’s a risky act of writing: it may increase the weight of the sentiment, but it could just as easily provoke an eye roll. In the end, it’s up to the audience to discern how to react to these words.

But words have a context—one from which they are, in fact, inseparable. Speaker. Location. Occasion. Audience. We begin by knowing these before moving to the murkier task of ascribing meaning. Here we must be honest, for the line between ascribing meaning and judging the character of the speaker is gossamer thin. 

So, for the context: The words are said by Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), and they are dispersed amid a courtroom full of hearers who are either predisposed toward Voyter’s calculated cruelty or her innocence, or else they are altogether vexed. Voyter is on trial following the death of her husband, who fell from the attic of their Alpine cottage and was found, bleeding in the snow, by their son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner). When the film begins prior to the death, there’s a tension between Sandra and her husband, but the fatal moments aren’t depicted. The cause of Samuel Maleski’s death thus remains unknown to most of the characters and the audience. Did he commit suicide in a moment of despair? Was it a lapse of balance? Or did Sandra play a more active role?

This is the occasion for Sandra’s claim. There’s always a chaos to any relationship, always a tension—but rarely does that become a motive for murder. The question is, does anyone listen? Does anyone buy it? Do we?

We never see Sandra and Samuel interact prior to his death, and we only see a brief interaction between her and Daniel. Their world—how they cultivated a life together, what their habits and frustrations were—remains closed to us. We only get a glimpse before the fall, and everything from then on is a matter for the police and the courts. 

There’s a moment of shock when Daniel discovers his father’s body, a call of terror as Sandra demands an ambulance. Sandra is dazed, Daniel despondent. But the violence of those emotions is quickly crowded out by the machinations of a formal investigation. Police arrive to dutifully document the body, the blood, the layout of the cottage, the responses of the aggrieved, and the events surrounding the death. Shortly thereafter, lawyers arrive. Soon there will be more police and more lawyers, this time of a more hostile nature. They come and they go, photographing and placing markers and visualizing the fateful moment. As the formalities take over, Sandra doesn’t neatly play the assumed role of a shocked widow. She is mourning, but there’s a stillness to her that perhaps conflicts with the expectations of the investigators. She is not hysterical, nor is she pleading or in denial. She doesn’t fit the police’s vision for how a shocked witness should act, which lures their suspicion in her direction. Despite conveying her innocence through all of these encounters, the current is clear and inevitable, and she’s soon arrested under suspicion of murder.

Anatomy of a Fall is simple on the surface, but it conceals a devilishly complex critique beneath its unadorned setup. Triet’s dexterity and a stellar performance by Hüller make Anatomy of a Fall one of the best films of the year (and netted the film a deserving Palme d’Or at Cannes). Hüller is prickly and fervent, carrying the disappointments and desires and pleasures that Voyter’s life has accumulated. She is not always fully honest. When pressed, she insists that these are untruths common to every relationship—in no way evidence of guilt. Nor is she apologetic about the conflicts in her marriage, the ways her and Samuel’s lives diverged even when together. She expresses it all in ways that remain occasionally difficult to interpret, which is to say that it’s a remarkably natural performance for its complexity, embodying the ambiguity that Anatomy of a Fall hinges on.

The obvious question at the center of the film is that of Sandra’s guilt. That line of inquiry is only a mirage, however, behind which lie questions around the uncertainty of truth and the ambiguous nature of our demand for it. Every detail of the trial is buried in the uncertainty of memory, the speculation demanded by audio recordings, the weighing of one motive against another, and the inescapable possibility of seeing each new piece of evidence in radically different lights. Triet further confounds reality by introducing the complexities of language, story, and projection. Voyter is a native German on trial in France, and she frequently relies on English to communicate most clearly. She’s also a novelist, and the prosecuting attorney points to similarities between her earlier work and Samuel’s death. Can fiction be evidence against an author? Is the imagination of a writer the same as that writer’s emotional state?

Truth is elusive in this endeavor—and in this life. Uncertainty, speculation, ascribing of motive, and interpretation are all elements that cloud our everyday existence. Anatomy of a Fall understands that, and it understands that such a fog is simply accepted until tragedy breaks in. These are elements we inhabit and work through as we clarify our meanings, reflect on memories, or give grace for misinterpreted words. We rely on our ways of navigating these elements to construct our own worlds. But our relationship to them can quickly turn nefarious when we are asked to judge someone else’s. 

While contending for her innocence, Sandra tells her lawyer, “That recording is not reality. It’s a part of it, maybe.” He coolly replies, “You have to start seeing yourself how others will see you.” Triet weaponizes this line. How do others see Sandra? is an unsettling question even before we confront the difficulty of defining others. There’s an array of audiences in Triet’s film: the court with its judges and lawyers, who have already built reliable narratives and accordingly fit each new revelation into that neat story; the gathered journalists looking for their own hook to entrap eager readers; and the gawking public who follow along through newsreels and morning talk shows. To the first audience, their vision of Sandra is inextricable from their picture of justice. To the second, she represents nothing so much as a big break in their career. To the latter, this is fodder for excitement. None of these visions allow for Sandra to be a real person; instead, they instrumentalize her in the pursuit of various goals.

And then there’s us. 

With a troubling realization, we must confront the fact that we form yet another audience. After all, isn’t this trial fodder for our excitement? Triet pointedly incorporates heightened filmmaking to tease our senses, interlacing the courtroom scenes with quick pans and zooms that are rarely matched in scenes outside of the trial. She satiates our craving for thills even as she slashes away at the problematic nature of such a desire. 

This subversive streak even extends to Triet’s choice of a courtroom drama for her narrative structure. The shape of a story dictates how we perceive as an audience. With a plot as simple as this, we know what we’re getting into. The film’s title refers back to one of the classics of the genre, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, and it’s impossible not to think of how the word Fall so delicately and ingeniously replaces Murder. The deck is stacked.

*

“Man as Other comes to us from the outside, a separated—or holy—face.”
—Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity

We watch Hüller playing Voyter, becoming investigators in a double sense. We parse Voyter’s every tick and sigh to find the motive, the reality behind the mystery. Or, we’re looking for the tell in Hüller, an indication as to whether she knows the truth. Sandra’s complicity and Hüller’s performance are under our judgment. But what are we truly after? We want to feel like detectives, but if the truth were so discoverable, it may not be the result of our intellect but rather a weak script or erring performance. We hope that, as Levinas claims, “the face speaks.” But whose face, Hüller’s or Voyter’s—and does such a distinction mean anything? Either way, we’re only out to satisfy our craving for an answer. We’re hardly different from the journalists or French public following the case. Just as the courtroom experts can diagram the fall all they want, we can only waste our breath in speculation. It doesn’t bring us any closer to what exactly occurred.

To underpin the slippery nature of reality, Triet shrewdly employs the media of investigation, emphasizing the recorders and fuzzy, handheld cameras used by the police at the crime scene. The image will at times switch to these cameras, shifting our sense of the scene. She keeps up these techniques as the story moves to the court, showing live news updates and the story-driven reporters who are desperate for a damning photo of Sandra. By calling attention to the media, Anatomy mocks our expectations that this case is for our entertainment. Someone has died. The lives of his wife and son are irreparably marred by loss. And we veil our wanton excitement under the guise of truth seeking. Yes, it’s true, it’s simply a film. But a film which reflects our reality bears the right to criticize it. Our current culture obsesses over true crime, and we approach it with the same lust for drama as we do movies. We hardly have a distinction between fact and fiction; it’s not that we believe entertainment is truth, but that reality has become entertainment. 

In Triet’s story, though, we aren’t the most important audience; Daniel is. Among Triet’s bold decisions, the most outré is to write this boy—the one to discover Samuel’s body and the only witness besides Sandra—as living with visual impairment. It could be seen as a sordid ploy to ratchet up the drama, but it also draws out ancient allusions: the blind prophet Tiresias revealing guilt and fate. Or, the words of Jesus Christ from Matthew’s gospel: “If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Little help, though, for even these echoes lead us in contrary directions.

As the judge puts it, Daniel has “a vested interest,” a comment that highlights the sheer apathy of the state. Justice is abstracted, held apart from the humanity of those affected. It is a mere object. This runs counter to how Levinas articulated justice: “Truth is thus bound up with the social relation. Justice consists in recognizing in the Other my master.” Justice cannot be separated from the meaning inherent in the relationships we have. For Daniel, this is the heart of the matter. It’s his trust in his mom. It’s the rest of his life. It’s the shape of his grief. The lack of an answer doesn’t titillate Daniel, it frightens him. Anatomy of a Fall’s critique resides with its audience; its grand idea, if it has one, rests with Daniel. 

*

“I fall down, for what I encounter there is the paradox.”
—Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

As Daniel flails for truth, still uncertain of his mother’s guilt, his court-appointed guardian tries to comfort and guide him. She offers the best words she can muster, but they aren’t easy to hear. In the final lack of an answer, she tells him, it’s up for him to decide.

“So you have to invent your belief?” 

“No. I’m saying decide.”

A strange, crucial, and maddening distinction: a Kierkegaardian dilemma. Daniel must leap toward putting his faith in something: Sandra’s innocence and his father’s suicide, or else his father’s violent murder at the hands of his mother. Either choice will shatter his vision of at least one of his parents. Does he confront the unfathomable trenches of pain that caused his father to succumb, at last, to their depths? Or does he believe the enmity between his parents so great, and his mother so capable of violence, that she could be a killer? And what of him—will he grow up without either parent, or will he choose to live with his mother and the final uncertainty of her innocence? Neither is a good option, per se, but they’re the only ones available to Daniel.

In the end, they’re the only ones available to us, as well. They remain merely options, not answers. Our dubious quest for the truth has led us here, so we must make our choice and leap. Or perhaps we already chose long ago, before the trial even started, before the death even occurred. Before we even sat down in a theater.

The trick of Anatomy of a Fall is that it entombs both a searing anthropological critique and a personal, existential confrontation inside a clear cut courtroom drama. Answers are scarce; still, we make our leaps, as we do every day. Truthfully, we rely more on speculation and faulty interpretations to navigate life’s uncertainty than we ever admit. 

Here at the edge of the abyss, we find ourselves with Daniel. He is not our soothsayer, nor is he our guide drawing us unknowingly into a pit. Instead, he may just be our patron saint. Daniel fears, he doubts, he worries—and he decides. Such a decision is necessary, even though it doesn’t eradicate our doubts. Kierkegaard denounced the predominant, overly neat views of faith, claiming that “what they leave out is the distress, the dread, the paradox.” After it’s all said and done, Daniel confesses that he still carries some of that fear. Our leaps of faith—or, if you prefer, our decisions to trust—carry within them the echoes of our previous anxieties. But that very remnant of doubt incarnates our faith to greater and greater degrees. 

As the voice of doubt continues to echo inside us, it transforms our leap from a singular action into persistent practice. It becomes a way of life. In trusting another (inevitably an Other), we give ourselves over to them at the risk of being wrong. Not once only, but repeatedly. Daily. Such trust is in a constant state of re-creation: of doubting and occasional shattering and reforming and flourishing. Will Daniel never wonder about Sandra’s guilt again? Will he never question the truth dormant beneath his memory? Of course he will, likely for the rest of his life. He’ll wonder and be placed back at the edge, called to leap once more. He—and we—may one day choose to leap in a different direction, but a leap is nevertheless required.

Anatomy of a Fall is much like the abundant snow of the French Alps surrounding the cottage. It’s pure. Beautiful. Resistant. It throws everything into relief against its stark nature, even as it wipes away all signs from the landscape. In the end, the truth is consumed by the flattening of uncertainty. In the bleak beauty of uncertainty, we fall. Or else we leap.