French director Justine Triet made Cannes history in May as the third woman to win the festival’s highest honour, the Palme d’Or, with her shapeshifting psychodrama powered by an actress at the top of her game.
Successful novelist Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) finds husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) dead in the snow outside their Alpine chalet, his blood staining a kingdom of white. Rather, their blind 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner, brilliant) finds the body and Sandra finds herself the prime suspect in a murder investigation. But maybe it was an accident?
This gorgeously poised mystery functions as a court procedural, a character study and a sly interrogation of the fact that female guilt can be assessed by likeability as much as by proof of criminal behaviour.
On the afternoon before Samuel’s death, Sandra hosts a seductive interview with grad student Zoé (Camille Rutherford). The women don’t have long before they are interrupted by blasts of a steel-band cover of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P played on repeat by Samuel upstairs. Zoé (Camille Rutherford) leaves. Soon Samuel follows, in the permanent mortal sense.
This loaded meeting with Zoé becomes part of the case presented by the prosecution that all was not well in the Voyter marriage. Triet leaves open the question of Sandra’s guilt or innocence and uses the trial as an opportunity to unpack the character of a woman who defies easy categorisation. We witness the way that conventional morality and legal analysis blur as secret recordings of the couple’s arguments and passages from Sandra’s books are used to conflate what emerges as a toxic relationship with a motive for murder.
There are still more layers to this sinewy, Gone Girl-esque treat of a motion picture. Events are often framed through the unseeing eyes of Daniel – who is grieving his dad while combing through his memory to decide whether to defend his mum. Solace and a crucial plot twist arrive via a scene-stealing border collie named Snoop.
The woman at the heart of it all – whose enigmatic performance carries every possible read of her character – is the formidable German actress Sandra Hüller. Whether deflecting the flirtatious overtures of her defence lawyer, briskly navigating the domestic upheaval of a murder investigation, doting on Daniel or calmly excavating every skeleton in her closet, she never collapses into victimhood. Hüller’s impenetrable poise is such that Anatomy of a Fall bleeds into an anatomy of her cool.
Anatomy of a Fall is in cinemas now