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The Anatomy of Anatomy of a Fall

Justine Triet’s courtroom drama throws convention out the window

Content warning: domestic violence
Spoiler warning

“P.I.M.P” by 50 Cent is having an unprecedented resurgence in pop culture. An immensely talented and adorable dog won an award at Cannes, has his own Wikipedia page, and attended the Oscars. A dreamy, French, silver fox lawyer has taken the internet by storm. These unforeseen events can be attributed to Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, which has arguably been the film that has kept the most momentum post awards season (albeit largely thanks to North America always being late to the hype of international films). It also did not walk away empty handed, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and deservedly so – the film offers a completely fresh take on the legal drama that only a female director could conceive.

Anatomy of a Fall is the story of Sandra (Sandra Hüller), an author living in a secluded town in the French Alps, whose husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) mysteriously falls to his death from the attic and is found by their visually-impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner). Sandra is suspected for her husband’s murder, for which she undergoes a tense and emotional trial. What makes the film so different from the standard courtroom drama, however, is that Sandra’s legal interrogation reflects the kind of suspicion and blame that women (especially bisexual women, like Sandra), are met with every single day. Through flashbacks and domestic scenes outside the courtroom where we see Sandra in her most intimate moments, the film explores how trust is something bisexual women are hardly ever afforded under any circumstances.

Perhaps the most subversive and surprising element of Anatomy of a Fall comes right at the end; Sandra is acquitted, but we never find out exactly how Samuel died. This perplexing conclusion, though, is not the first time the film withholds information or disguises the fact that the audience, who is usually granted more omniscience than characters, knows just about as much as they do. In a pivotal scene, an argument between the couple the day before Samuel’s death – recorded by her husband without her knowledge or consent – is used against Sandra in court. As it begins playing in the court, and we see it transcribed on the screen, the scene transitions into a flashback of the row itself, presumably from Sandra’s point of view. Just before the climax of the fight, Triet throws the viewer back into the courtroom, where sounds of glass breaking and other aural indications of violence fill the silence. Although Sandra provides the court with an explanation of violence, we never actually see it.

The only character one could argue knows more than us is Sandra herself; we never actually see her actions the day of Samuel’s death on screen – we only have her verbal testimony. Despite being a defendant under scrutiny from just about everyone else in the film, she has the most agency over what both the characters and the audience know. The fact that a woman has agency over what the truth of the scenario is, and that it never comes out, shows Triet’s brilliant message that objective truth and patriarchy go hand in hand. “It’s not reality, it’s our voices. That’s true, but it’s not who we are,” argues Sandra. Women are constantly having their voices used against them by men in the search for objective right or wrong, true or false, innocence or guilt. Having a woman control the entire scope of the narrative obstructs the audience and the other characters from seeing the truth “objectively,” and the patriarchal satisfaction of finding a woman guilty, as is typical of the legal system, is thrown out the window.

It isn’t a coincidence then that the prosecutor is a man while the defendant, the primary witness (her son), her son’s court monitor Marge, and the judge are all either women or, in the case of Daniel, a disabled boy. As someone who does not embody the perfect patriarchal ideal of masculinity, Daniel is aligned with the women in the courtroom against the infuriating prosecutor. The women have control over the information and the outcome, yet it is a man who delivers the final argument for what he believes to be the truth. The prosecutor attempts to incite, provoke and goad Sandra through chastising and frankly sexist interrogation tactics. But Sandra remains resolute, having likely experienced similar accusations from her husband Samuel, and from countless other men for as long as she can remember.

An eye-roll-worthy but salient moment of the trial comes when the prosecutor spotlights Sandra’s infidelity with women and her identity as bisexual, implying that her sexual orientation makes her inherently promiscuous and untrustworthy. Sandra is unbelievably calm and collected in the face of this preposterous claim, but her sexuality as a point of contention for men is a very important aspect of the film. These kinds of accusations are all too familiar to bisexual women, both demeaning them and propping up the straight white man as the epitome of the healthy partner. This part of the trial shows the depressing truth that even the emotional fragility and instability of men will be taken more seriously than a calm and composed woman. If anything, Sandra’s coolness during the trial is completely in line with her character, because as a bisexual woman, she’s been on trial her entire life.

So how did a film with such strong queer themes, a woman who is morally ambiguous, no shocking reveal, and very few adult male characters become an awards season darling? For lack of a better term, Justine Triet has played high-brow cinema’s game, but by her rules. The Academy is no stranger to the courtroom drama, but usually deals with them in a very conventional way. Acclaimed courtroom dramas are usually male-dominated, where the hero is either a defendant who has been wrongly convicted, or a conflicted lawyer trying to do the right thing. None of these tropes appear in Anatomy of a Fall. The film instead allows our biases towards or against Sandra to be purely emotional because we don’t know the truth – an approach seemingly contradictory to the genre itself. Its discursive elements shine through their subtlety, and all the details of the case become a means through which Sandra’s husband’s life, not just his death, are easily blamed on her for being a bisexual woman.

There were so many films by women this year pertinent to feminist issues that were neglected by major awards ceremonies; Priscilla was absent from the Oscars, and of course all hope was shattered for Barbie. And although queer representation was fantastic in the indie/comedy genres, there wasn’t a ton that had the level of prestige (or pretentiousness) demanded by the Academy. But thanks to its unprecedented approach to the courtroom drama and perfect amount of subtle criticism, Anatomy of a Fall triumphed, and gave us a bisexual, feminine masterpiece in a legal drama’s clothing.