Anatomy of a Fall

NEON
The highest prize awarded at the annual Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or is the French festival’s version of Best Picture and carries with it automatic Oscar buzz. But, historically speaking, the honor hasn’t automatically translated to Oscar success, as only two Palme d’Or winners have won the Oscar for Best Picture, Marty in 1955 and Parasite in 2022. That’s not to say that the Cannes winner doesn’t regularly make an appearance at the Oscars. Just last year, Cannes winner Triangle of Sadness was nominated for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay and this year, the Cannes Festival winner, Anatomy of a Fall, has even bested that with five nominations in total for Editing, Original Screenplay, Actress, Director and Picture.

The reason for so little overlap between Palme d’Or winners and Oscar Best Picture winners likely comes down to the completely different aesthetic between the two voting bodies. Cannes festival goers and judges pride themselves on awarding artists who present groundbreaking elements in storytelling or who are edgy, unique or challenge the boundaries of the medium. Oscar voters, by contrast, normally prefer safe, traditional and accessible storytelling, paired with high production values and performances. Rarely do you find films that can please both groups. But, in Anatomy of a Fall, writer/director Justine Triet has brilliantly created a film that is all at once accessible yet experimental, challenging yet relatable and weird yet traditional, a film for both France and Hollywood, and my favorite film of 2023.

What makes Anatomy of a Fall so good is how many different things it is. It is part mystery, part thriller, part family drama, and part courtroom drama. The story centers around Sandra (played by Sandra Hüller), a German writer who lives in a chalet in the French Alps with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their visually-impaired son, played by Milo Machado Graner. When Sandra’s husband is found to have fallen to his death from the third floor of their chalet, questions arise as to how it happened: did he fall, did he jump, or was he pushed? The focus naturally falls onto Sandra, and she is forced to defend herself, to friends, to the court, even to her son as she insists she had no part in her husband’s death. But, as the story plays out, evidence comes to light that casts doubt on Sandra’s innocence—or does it?

If you think you know how this film plays out, you’re wrong. Anatomy of a Fall’s most alluring characteristic is its aloofness, it’s casual matter-of-factness that sucks you in and slowly tightens your stomach without you even realizing how clenched your fists are. And, even better, how unwilling screenwriters Triet and Arthur Harari are to paint the audience a clear picture or to lead them by the hand. Nothing in life is as cut-and-dried as most films would have you think. Life is lived in the grey areas, and Anatomy of a Fall explores every inch of it.

It can’t be ignored that this film is written by a married couple. Triet and Harari are, by every account, happily married, but the realism they inject into this script, that of a couple coming undone slowly by a loose thread that continues to get pulled on, feels so raw and lived in, it’s just as scary to think about the places they went to to write this script than what actually lands on the page.

But it’s so much more than a look at a troubled marriage. Anatomy of a Fall is also a scintillating courtroom drama and a family drama that holds just as much compassion as it does tragedy. Besides Hüller’s magnetically-charged performance that deserves every plaudit (and Oscar nom), the rest of the performances in this film are just as engaging, especially Antoine Reinartz as the prosecutor you love to hate and Graner, who injects the humanity into this film with a haunting and deeply moving performance as a son forced to confront painful truths.

Anatomy of a Fall is the best kind of film: one with layers that slowly unravel, a story that doesn’t let you go, performances that hold you riveted, a mystery that keeps you guessing and human drama that is equal parts relatable and repellent. You won’t have seen this one coming and you’ll never guess where it will take you, but the journey is worth every second.