Hüller plays Sandra, who is introduced by giving an interview about her life as a famous author—Triet’s film plays fascinatingly with the idea that writers inherently use the people around them in a way that makes them unique, making the profession of her protagonist important (and I don’t think it’s coincidental her lead couple share the names of their performers). As the interview goes on and gets arguably a bit flirtatious, loud music begins to pump from above in this remote, snow-surrounded cabin in the French Alps. It’s her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), playing an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” of all things. On repeat. And louder and louder. He’s aggressively trying to derail the interview, and he succeeds. The interviewer leaves, and their son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) takes the dog Snoop for a long walk. When he returns, he finds Samuel in the snow, a bloody wound in his head. Did he fall from the attic in which he was working? Did he jump? Or was he pushed?
For the next two-and-a-half hours, “Anatomy of a Fall” almost procedurally details the investigation and trial around Samuel’s death. Every decision made not just that day but over much of their marriage is scrutinized by people who have never met Sandra, Samuel, or Daniel. Rarely has a film captured how much personal baggage comes flying out when a death is ruled inconclusive. Samuel’s therapist testifies that he wasn’t suicidal, but, of course, he only saw what Samuel wanted to show him. The interviewer is asked to comment on the state of a woman she just met that day. What does she know about their lives? We only ever see part of a person’s mental state. At times, it feels like Sandra’s personality is on trial. Then again, some evidence that she’s responsible is pretty compelling.
It may sound like Triet is playing a mystery game with “Anatomy of a Fall,” but she’s never manipulative or withholding, and the film actually improves when one casts aside a bit of the gamesmanship that a lesser filmmaker would have relied upon when telling this story. Yes, there’s a puzzle to be solved here, and I believe it does get solved, but that’s not what matters. Triet is trying to interrogate how couples communicate or fail to do so and what that failure can lead to in the end. It’s important that neither Sandra nor Samuel speak in their native tongue—they find common ground in English—and that Daniel suffers from reduced eyesight from an accident. We don’t fully understand each other. We don’t fully see each other.