Anatomy of a Fall review: French courtroom drama is a sharp portrait of failed romance

Nominated for Best Picture at the 2024 Academy Awards, director Justine Triet's film is a whodunnit like no other

Sandra Huller and Milo Machado Graner play husband and wife in Anatomy of a Fall. AP
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It's tempting to review Anatomy of a Fall – French director Justine Triet’s break-out film and likely Oscar winner – with one sentence, and leave it at that: “This film contains multitudes.”

It would be an easy cop-out for a challenging, but deeply involving and ultimately rewarding work. And one that’s easy to agree with, especially as some of its complexity is purely on the surface.

For starters, it’s hard to categorise. It’s a courtroom procedural, a whodunnit, a character study, a family drama. But once you start to parse it, it’s clear what’s going on here. Underneath it all is a portrait of a failed marriage, with several genres caught in the web of toxicity.

Tolstoy famously started his novel Anna Karenina with perhaps his greatest observation: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

It’s clear from the start of the film that this is an unhappy family. How exactly that unhappiness developed is the real mystery here.

Sandra Voyter (Sandra Huller) is a successful novelist of German origin, married to university lecturer Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis). When we meet her in the opening scene, she’s being interviewed in their home, and Samuel is off camera upstairs, blasting music at such a loud volume that it soon becomes clear to all involved that he’s doing it to spite her.

Not long after, their blind son and dog return from their walk to find Samuel dead in the driveway. Did he jump from the window? Was he pushed? These are questions that you will ask yourself again and again, and the more we get to know Sandra, the harder it becomes to answer this definitively.

Cut open any long-term relationship and, like a tree, you’ll find rings of strife – arguments both petty and substantial that calloused over for new rings to build on top of them.

Anatomy of a Fall cuts through the callouses of Sandra and Samuel’s marriage from the outside in. We start with their final disagreement – the music is too loud – and as we go, we ponder their unhappiness. We find out about their twin ambitions to become great writers, something at which only Sandra succeeded. We learn about the blindness of their son, which Samuel blames Sandra for. We hear whispers of infidelity.

The deeper we go, the more we yearn to reach their rotten core, both as a couple and as individuals. We just want to know why, if they even knew it themselves.

And at last, in the final act of the film, we receive our Rosetta Stone. It’s a recording of the argument the night before Samuel’s death, and when it begins to play in the courtroom as Sandra’s fate hangs in the balance, we finally get to see the two of them in action in the film’s first flashback.


Director: Justine Triet

Starring: Sandra Huller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner

Rating: 5/5

It’s in that scene that this becomes one of the greatest films of the contemporary era. Here, it captures something that is found in too many adult households and yet is rarely matched in fiction – a couple’s thousandth and final fight, two people who know the other’s strengths and faults, ducking verbal blows they anticipated and then trying to throw a cutting insight they’ve never stabbed with before.

It’s also two writers analysing each other as characters and delivering their devastating insights. It’s duelling unvarnished truth, weathered maturity, and the detached cruelty that comes only when the love inside you has starved to death.

“Did she do it?” may be the first question on your mind. By the end, “who are we really?” will be the one that lingers.

The film doesn’t answer that question, leaving it to us instead. Here’s an easy cop-out: we contain multitudes.

Anatomy of a Fall is back in cinemas across the UAE now

Updated: March 08, 2024, 6:51 PM

Director: Justine Triet

Starring: Sandra Huller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner

Rating: 5/5