Wednesday 25 October 2023

Anatomie d'une chute / Anatomy of a Fall

 You have to invent your belief.

In a central moment towards the end of the film, Marge (Jehnny Beth, from the great band Savages) talks to Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). She has been assigned by the court that is hearing the case against his mother to ensure the integrity of his testimony. She lives with the family, keeping his mother from talking to him about the trial, and polices the language spoken in the home – normally, Sandra Hüller’s Sandra would speak English with him, but under Marge’s supervision, every interaction has to be in French, and language Sandra speaks, but hasn’t mastered to the extent that she can express herself fully in (a very important distinction). Daniel is weighing up the facts of the case, and the question he has to answer for himself is a difficult one: has his father (played by Samuel Theis, absent for most of the film, as he dies early on) committed suicide, or has his mother pushed him in anger from a balcony. It’s a question that severely impacts his future – will he be without both his parents, or will he live with a woman who may have killed his father. The facts as presented in the court room are inconclusive, which is the whole point of the film: in a way, the trial is persecuting the facts of a couple, of their marriage, their relationship, but can do so only in the glimpses available like breadcrumbs. They do not encompass the totality of their existence, and perhaps, in their limitations, are unable to paint a true picture of what life with his parents was like for Daniel. They certainly present a deeply skewed picture of both Sandra and Samuel, who is no longer there to speak for himself. Marge says that in the absence of factual certainty, he has to choose what he believes to be true. This is, of course, also a choice the audience of the film has to make, as the central mystery is never resolved (in an interview, director Justine Triet has said that she also doesn’t know). 

Anatomy of a Fall unravels mainly as a court drama, when the defense attorney (played by Swann Arlaud), who has past history with Sandra, presents his theory that Samuel killed himself, while the prosecutor attempts to paint her as a murderous wife, who has withheld relevant information about past indiscretions and fights and even went as far as writing about a wife considering the murder of her husband in one of her novels. Both sides are trying to sell a story to the jury, but as storytellers with limited information and insight into their subjects, both men fail to paint a picture of a marriage that Sandra has intimately lived, and Daniel witnessed as her son. Triet beautifully portrays the limits of truly capturing or comprehending another person – and in a way, the film perhaps makes more profound points about narratives than it does about the realities of a court room. There is always the underlying frustration of language itself, literally, as Sandra struggles to respond to the prosecutor’s hostile questions in her third language, one she can’t entirely inhabit yet, as she lacks the vocabulary to completely convey her meaning – a frustration that must be even more severe for a writer. Later on, she will switch to English, and seem more at ease, but the interesting fact of the film is that there isn’t a single scene in which Sandra is allowed to revert to her native German.

It’s a question that is only raised once, when the court hears a recording of an increasingly aggressive argument between Sandra and her husband. The recording feels like a turning point in the case – the only time that Samuel speaks at the trial, through a recording he secretly made a day before his death – after so many others have interpreted his character (his wife, his psychiatrist). We have only heard about him from others – Sandra has spoken about their son was blinded in an accident that may not have happened had he picked him up in time, how he was frustrated about his inability to write. His psychiatrist has spoken about the pressure he felt from Sandra, how he had to carry the weight of Daniel’s accident and blindness by himself. In the recording, Samuel asks for more time for himself. It begins as a one-sided conversation about domestic duties that he appears to carry mostly alone. Sandra responds that their domestic arrangement is something he chose when he made them move to his home village, that it was his decision to renovate a home, to homeschool Daniel. If he wants to have more time, he has to make it himself from the time he has dedicated to other things, but her time is her own. The conversation gets more heated when Sandra accuses him of using the argument as an excuse, that this time of arguing about chores and what being a couple means could be better spent writing. It escalates when Samuel accuses her of having “plundered” an idea from a novel he abandoned for one of her own novels, and accuses her of imposing her own life on him – he also says that the decision to speak English at home instead of French is one of her impositions, even though Sandra reasonably argues that as native German- and French-speakers respectively, they are meeting in the middle. In the end, we hear fighting, crashing – Triet leaves us with the noises alone, once again left to make our own minds up about what is actually happening.  

The existence of the recording itself, the fact that, apparently, Samuel was recording snippets of his life to use in auto-fiction, opens questions about authenticity. If both partners were mining their private lives for stories – and the court hears that Sandra often does so for her novels – then what does this say about how genuine any interaction between can be? Has Samuel provoked the argument so he has something to write about, or is it a genuine frustration over a disparity in responsibility that keeps him from following his dream while his wife appears to be flourishing? It connects back beautifully to the first scene, the only one that happens prior to his fall. A student (Camille Rutherford) has arrived at their alpine chalet to interview Sandra about her work, but just as they start, blaring music interrupts them. The same song over and over again, as if Samuel, who is working on insulating the attic, is deliberately sabotaging. It cuts the interview short, but nevertheless, it will later be dissected in court, when the prosecutor takes it apart bit by bit to prove a point about Sandra’s extra-marital affairs – brandishing the word “bisexual” is if it were certain proof of how little she confirms to the standards of a good wife. He asks the interviewer if she felt like she was being seduced, but as with all the facts of the case, it depends on interpretation (and isn’t any attempt at connection a seduction of sorts?). From the perspective of the prosecutor, Sandra had a history of unfaithfulness and being interviewed by a “beautiful” young woman presented another provocation for Samuel. From Sandra’s perspective, Samuel’s decision to move them into a mountain village (in one of her most bitter statements, she speaks about escaping the narrowness of her own home town in Germany only to end up amidst the goats here) where she has barely any social contact outside of her husband and child isn’t just an inconvenience but a prison of sorts – but would she have killed her husband to escape it?

The suspense of the film would collapse utterly if it weren’t for the performance of Sandra Hüller (who I first saw in Hans-Christian Schmid's Requiem, another harrowing performance), who excels in her second film with Triet. She captures the frustration of being misinterpreted, wilfully, at court, the imposition of being asked to express herself in a language that limits her range, but she also comes alive in scenes with her lawyer, that read as if she remembers who she was before her marriage became miserable, and with her son, who appears to also be an avid and evocative storyteller (his final memory of his father, perhaps attempting to prepare his son for a life without him, appears to be what sways the jury to free his mother – its truthfulness is up for interpretation). This is a film about the impossibility of capturing the entirety of a person in a narrative – both in a relationship, and in a court trial – and yet the final scene, when Sandra returns home and falls asleep holding the beautiful and true family dog (a secret break-out star of the film), whom she does not have to explain herself to. 

2023, directed by Justine Triet, starring Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaïeb, Camille Rutherford, Anne Rotger. 

No comments: