Writing in 1924, the rhetorician and literary critic I.A. Richards remarked, in his Principles of Literary Criticism, on the “futility of all argumentation that precedes understanding.” For Richards, opinions and standpoints are both expressive and substantive; they convey some thesis regardless of how this conveyance is undertaken, and the critic’s goal, consequently, was to distill both style and substance in order to “profitably attack” their object of analysis. If we, in turn, were to situate under the purview of literary criticism — along with its poesies, proses, and playwrights — such rhetorical objects as proclamations of guilt and innocence, we would find the invocation of medical metaphor quite befitting of their investigation. For “anatomy,” which concerns itself with the dissection and uncovering of the human body, has curiously adapted to disclose a world already known as material; what’s left, after science has mapped out its terrain, is to mine this terrain for difficult treasures, to establish motive from causality, and to penetrate casual phenomena in search for moral reason.
Just shy of a century after Richards, anatomy has taken center stage atop cinema, arguably the most vaunted literary tradition after literature. Winning the Palme d’Or with little controversy and to large acclaim, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall also has the happy honor of marking just the third instance of a female filmmaker bagging Cannes’ top prize: a feat remarkable in itself for many. To top it off, Triet’s fourth feature also eschews gaudy, frightful fantasy — an element essential to both Julia Ducournau’s Titane and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, its immediate predecessors in the awards pantheon — in favor of something much more eminent and respectable: the legal drama. Taking its cue from Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, released some sixty-four years prior, Anatomy of a Fall charts the personal vicissitudes of a family beset by tragedy after its patriarch is found dead, at the snowy foot of their French chalet, from causes unclear.
To be clear, there is a physical cause: “head trauma,” as the coroner explicitly states and corroborates with the congealing blood pool left by the deceased. But this cause is neither sufficient to rule out third-party involvement, nor satisfying in demystifying the troubled months that directly or indirectly led up to it. Sandra (helmed by Sandra Hüller in a performance of dazzling bravura) is a novelist who, in the absence of conclusive evidence to the contrary, is suspected of foul play in the death of her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis). A lesser novelist, Samuel had suffered bouts of stifled creativity, lacking inspiration and productive drive to pursue his faltering career whilst under pressure from financial strain and the homeschooling of the couple’s young, blind son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). One fine morning, as Sandra entertains an interview request in their home from a young female writer, Samuel drowns out their attempts at communication by way of blasting on loop an instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” from the attic. Afterwards, when the writer has taken her leave (and so does Daniel, alongside the family border collie, Snoop), Samuel lies spread-eagled, three floors below where he should be, no longer afflicted by mere creative dearth.
“Must we enter into a literary debate?” One attorney scolds another at Sandra’s trial, where she stands accused of orchestrating her partner’s demise, having been motivated allegedly by the unhappy circumstances of their marriage. “This isn’t literary, it’s concrete,” comes the reply, referring to the reams of textual cues and impressions gleaned from recordings, testimonies, and affects lobbed at all in attendance. In this regard, the film’s aforementioned personal vicissitudes constitute a double entendre, signifying more literally the internal travails of mother and son as they each reconfigure their relationship with the other, and more broadly the symbolic vestiges of their personae as refracted through courtroom and public opinion. As with most legal performances, the battle is split indistinguishably between facts and wit, and when the facts prove stubbornly elusive, the wit of rhetoric fills in for impartial persuasion. Sandra, with an air of aloof determination, has a track record of infidelity (and bisexuality; this latter trait may yet exonerate her from the former’s stigma), while her own work — classed as some form of autofictive offshoot of one of Samuel’s abandoned treatments — muses on the incriminating prospect of murder, recalling, of course, the highly charged eroticism of Sharon Stone’s femme fatale in Basic Instinct. Daniel, for the most part, proves to be only semi-reliable in his accounts, no doubt because he still lives with Sandra throughout the length of the proceedings, and more importantly because his testimony is restricted, as with most of the relevant evidence, to hearing.
The delightful ambiguity of Basic Instinct, however, is whitewashed in Anatomy of a Fall to exude the trappings of prestige. Stodgy and inert, the film devotes the majority of its runtime to implementing a faithful deconstruction of the fatal fall; its potential for excitement is quickly squandered past the literal reconstruction of body dummies hoisted over the precarious balcony and onto bleak, alpine snow. What replaces this excitement, to growing dismay, is a serviceable but unilluminating volleying of discourses that Triet neglects to endow with anything more than talking-point inertia. Flitting across several points and counterpoints so as to establish a maelstrom of ambiguity with respect to Sandra’s intentions and moral character, the film assumes the vantage point of an ideal Socratic dialogue, free to put forth — when and where it sees fit — its varying possibilities and interpretations, most thoroughly rendered substantial through an exaggerated and almost farcical legal dramedy. Sandra sleeps, or almost sleeps with her lawyer; that’s bound to ring warning bells as to his competence at handling her case. The panel of jurists, on the other hand, bear down on her like McCarthyist hawks in a kangaroo court, inflating the self-importance of their statements with especial attention to loud and pronounced diction.
In a nutshell, what Anatomy of a Fall sets out to achieve is also its greatest undoing: the larger-than-life aura of capital-C cinema that backfires as pretty bluster. One will rightly recognize Hüller’s phenomenal composure in Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár, who looms onscreen as an unmistakable force of personal magnetism and contains, à la Walt Whitman, “multitudes.” But Todd Field’s Tár is decidedly a very different beast; it’s less preoccupied with the end goal of fashioning feminism than it seeks to undress those very strictures that make up the performances and obsessions inherent to individuals of and beyond their time. In Triet’s film, what one sees conversely is the relaxation of form, now yielded to the demands of high-brow aestheticism and high-brow aestheticism alone. Its commitment to rationalizing an otherwise mythic narrative of marital dysfunction is fundamentally anti-mythic, grounded in the comforting realism that envelops the film’s political backdrop and thus permits its sloppier emotive bits to achieve their predetermined outcomes. You will watch it and you will feel this and that, the film seems to say, and while its screenplay — penned by Triet and her husband, Arthur Harari — is conceivably learned and intensely well-realized, little about it is distinguishable from the analytics of the past decade’s arthouse successes, now tempered with the dramaturgy of procedurals. If NEON, its American distributor and more notably the gloating acquirer of four consecutive Palms, touts a product as elevated, chances are that its pleasures are skin-deep and its opinions more colorful than meaningful. In Richards’ view, close reading here would bear little fruit, but would fruitfully expose the emperor’s new clothes.
DIRECTOR: Justine Triet; CAST: Sandra Hüll, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner; DISTRIBUTOR: NEON; IN THEATERS: October 13; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 32 min.