'Anatomy of a Fall' autopsies a marriage : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the complex and compelling French film Anatomy of a Fall, a husband is dead and his wife is the chief suspect. The investigation and trial expose the many rifts in their marriage, as the couple's young son yearns to understand what happened and why. Directed by Justine Triet and starring Sandra Hüller, the film won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

'Anatomy of a Fall' autopsies a marriage

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

A warning - this episode includes mention of suicide.

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WELDON: In the complex and compelling French film "Anatomy Of A Fall," a husband is dead, and his wife is the chief suspect. The investigation and trial expose the many rifts in their marriage. But did those rifts drive him to suicide or her to murder? As the evidence mounts and her fate is argued, the couple's young son yearns to understand what happened and why, and we are right there with him. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "Anatomy Of A Fall" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

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WELDON: Joining me today is NPR film critic Bob Mondello. Hey, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Good to be here.

WELDON: Good to have you. Also with us is the Philadelphia Inquirer's arts and entertainment editor and film critic Bedatri D. Choudhury. Hey, Bedatri. Welcome back.

BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY: Hello. Thank you so much.

WELDON: Great to have you. "Anatomy Of A Fall" begins with a family under tension. Sandra Huller plays Sandra. She's a German writer who recently relocated to the French Alps with her husband Samuel and their 11-year-old son. Samuel, played by Samuel Theis, is also a writer, but she is a lot more successful than he is, a fact that causes stress fractures in their marriage. When Samuel is found dead by their visually impaired son Daniel, played by Milo Machado Graner, it's unclear whether he fell from the attic window of their chalet or if he jumped or if he was pushed. Sandra becomes the chief suspect in Samuel's murder, though she maintains her innocence. And she hires an old romantic partner, played by Swann Arlaud, as her defense lawyer.

The movie is more than a courtroom drama, though it is very much that. It's also a dissection of a failed marriage, of broken trust and simmering resentments and unwilling compromises. And it includes several discussions about the nature of fiction because this movie is, you will recall, French. "Anatomy Of A Fall" was directed by Justine Triet. She co-wrote it with Arthur Harari. It's her fourth film, and it won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, making it only the third film directed by a woman to win that top prize. "Anatomy Of A Fall" is in theaters now. Bob Mondello, what'd you think?

MONDELLO: Oh, I thought it was wonderful. And it's interesting to note, although the film won the Palme d'Or, it is not going to be France's nominee when it comes time to do the Oscars.

WELDON: Yeah.

MONDELLO: But this one is a sprightly 2 1/2 hours, right? It's really tricky to describe what happens at the beginning of this movie.

WELDON: Really tricky. Yeah.

MONDELLO: And then it turns into a courtroom drama, but that's misrepresenting it in a way, too.

WELDON: Exactly.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

MONDELLO: It is doing a lot of different things all at once. It's a really interesting anatomy of a marriage.

WELDON: It absolutely is. Bedatri, what's your take?

CHOUDHURY: You know, when you see the poster, when you hear the name, obviously you're thinking of Otto Preminger. You're thinking of "Anatomy Of A Murder."

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: So I went in kind of expecting that kind of forensic, detail-driven storytelling. It does a disservice to the film to call it a courtroom drama.

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: Two and a half hours - well, disclaimer - I watched it at a 10 p.m. screening.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: So...

MONDELLO: Did you see the last half-hour?

CHOUDHURY: I did. I did. I stayed up. In fact, like, I did think there's a problem with the pacing. I think at the beginning of it, there's too much time spent on fitting in too much data. You know, I was like, oh, my God. I hope I stay up through all of it. But then suddenly I'm hooked. I think Sandra Huller is a goddess. Like...

WELDON: Right.

CHOUDHURY: She gives one of the best performances we've seen this year, and nothing takes away from that. I think it's a fantastically edited film. It's fantastically filmed. But I think where I am holding back a few points is what the film is trying to do. I know everyone is thinking, did she do it? But I don't think that's the point of the film, you know?

WELDON: Right.

CHOUDHURY: But the film wants us to think it is, but it's not. And I wonder if some part of me was hooked on the latter part of the film because it starts getting into the gruesome details and the, quote-unquote, "gossip" of it. You know, as the film reveals, the son cannot see because it's his parents fault. And...

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: She's bisexual. She has an open marriage. So of course she's a bad mother, so of course she's a murderer.

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: And I think the film sets out to not make you fall into these traps. But you do. And I don't know if I'm being played, so I'm just not sure.

MONDELLO: I found it engaging. I found that - especially as the film went on, I found it engaging because I was so worried about the kid. He's wonderfully played, and he's - he becomes the chief witness, although he can barely see, I mean, as a result of an accident. His fate is so intertwined with that of his mother's I found it really compelling what they did to make it so that he isn't automatically in her corner, right? And...

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

MONDELLO: What is weird about this movie is you can't talk about it. It's so hard...

WELDON: Yeah.

MONDELLO: ...To talk about it.

WELDON: Yeah.

MONDELLO: Almost all the details of it are - well, I was going to say giveaways, except they're not because you can go all the way through it and still not be absolutely certain about guilt or innocence, which is, in theory, the question that you're asking. It is, however, the question that becomes important in the film because of the kid.

WELDON: Yeah. I think the thing you come away with mostly is how messy the French legal system seems to be because, you know, in the press notes, Triet makes a point of saying it's much less structured than the American system, which is why, in that courtroom, it seems like anybody can just shout out anything at any time. And when the film devolves into this thing about, well, it's two writers living together, and what is fiction and what is truth, that felt very academic and - forgive me - very French. And I was kind of losing interest there. But then, as you say, Bedatri, it sets up some pretty sexist arguments that the prosecution brings in about how, you know, she is emasculating Samuel.

CHOUDHURY: Which you expect them to bring up, you know? If you are a courtroom drama person, you know what's going to come up.

WELDON: Exactly. And that's what I thought was - I like that it didn't just stay academic. It became a tool that was used against her. And, you know, we keep saying, folks, that this is not a whodunit. It's not a cozy mystery. The reason we're saying that is because I'm not entirely sure the marketing team knows that. I'm not sure the marketing team has seen this movie because, you know, when you go into a press screening, there's like a big title card up on the screen with, you know, all the promotional materials and the hashtag, and the hashtag for this movie is...

CHOUDHURY: Did she do it (laughter)?

WELDON: ...Did she do it? And, well, first of all, I'm sitting in a - and I know this is a French film, so I'm using my three years of high school French. And I'm like, (imitating French accent) did she do it? What is (imitating French accent) did she do it? I do not know this word - (imitating French accent) she do it.

CHOUDHURY: (Laughter).

WELDON: Because I'm an idiot. But, I mean, despite all the blood spatter analysis, the fall that gets anatomized here isn't Samuel's It's this marriage. And Daniel says at one point, I just need to understand. And that's what the film is about. It's not about assigning blame or guilt. It's about understanding this marriage was dead long before Samuel was.

MONDELLO: Right.

WELDON: But this is where I think you're picking up some of that struggle, Bedatri. And, Bob, I want to go to you because if understanding the nature of this marriage is the goal, which I think it is, the film really challenges itself because it constructs this massive obstacle by killing off Samuel.

MONDELLO: That's right.

WELDON: So for the first couple hours of this film, we are only getting her perspective. We never truly get access to Samuel's take. We only get to see him in a flashback argument which has been recorded and is submitted...

MONDELLO: Right.

WELDON: ...As evidence. There's so much weighting on that argument. How do you think it worked in the film?

MONDELLO: Well, it's really compelling because it feels - a lot of the movie is designed to be not artificial, exactly, but you're in situations where a lawyer is talking to a client or a prosecutor is asking questions and everything is essentially artificial. And then you get this bit of life that was recorded that - the film recreates it in toto. But what the people are hearing is what was recorded. And that feels lifelike in a way that is scary. You're watching something that is really tough. And anyone who's been in any kind of a relationship would recognize the fraying of it. It is horrifying to watch...

WELDON: Yeah.

MONDELLO: ...At the same time as it's not entirely conclusive one way or another.

WELDON: Right.

MONDELLO: I remember afterwards, she says something like, that's a moment.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

MONDELLO: It's not the whole story. And, of course, that's always true.

WELDON: Yeah.

MONDELLO: But it's a really compelling piece of information for you. It's great. It makes the last part of the picture just sort of snap together.

CHOUDHURY: And speaking of French legal dramas and, like, the theatricality of it, I think another French film called "Saint Omer" does a fantastic job of a legal courtroom drama. And I'd like to spend a minute talking about this comparison because, like Triet, Alice Diop also has, you know, started out with documentary. And you see that in both these films, this what gets called as the fly-on-the-wall camera work. And she uses a lot of that. But for me, honestly, the parts I really enjoyed the most or, like, that, quote-unquote, "did it for me" are the ones that are outside of the courtroom. Like, there's this part where there's a reenactment of a said argument.

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: There's a reenactment of the said fall. And, again, maybe I was expecting a Preminger. I really wanted to bite into that more.

WELDON: Yeah. I mean, that's interesting because, I mean, the fact that the thing that's happening in the courtroom is that we can see it but the people in the courtroom can't...

MONDELLO: Right.

WELDON: ...Which kind of has this echo of the fact that Daniel can hear things but he can't see them. The fact that they're both speaking English so that they can both be on common grounds means that - you know, we know so many things about this marriage. It was a negotiation from the jump. They both feel like a need to hold on to some sort of power. It also means that when they're talking to each other about these incredible, intimate things, they're still kind of mediating it - right? - because they're both fluent in English. But there's something missing from their communication if you're not speaking in your native tongue. It's a compromise.

Just in terms of the acting, Sandra Huller's amazing. I mean, that is the most naturalistic argument I think I've seen in a long time because in fiction and movies and TV, when characters have arguments, they're incredibly articulate and structured. And people set examples and respond to exactly what has just been said, which is not the way arguments work in real life.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: They are messy. They are circular. They double back. They're not about convincing the other person. They're about airing grievances, scoring points, opening old wounds. And they're not about what's actually being argued about. So there's - about everything that's been simmering below the surface forever, and that's why they go on and on, and that's why they're exhausting. And that's why I could watch Huller argue all day - because she's uncompromising, right? The way that she shows us that this character loves Daniel is in small moments without telegraphing it with a lot of the cliches of maternal warmth, you know? And I think it's interesting that she becomes most what we consider outwardly passionate when she's talking about her work.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

MONDELLO: Yeah.

WELDON: You know?

MONDELLO: Yeah (laughter).

WELDON: Good for her. And I don't think she's interested in letting us in. She doesn't judge the character, so she doesn't want us to. But of course we do because, like, there's a scene where she's outside sharing drinks and cigarettes with her lawyer late at night. Is she working him, or are they just sharing, you know, drinks and cigarettes, or why not both?

MONDELLO: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: But also, she deserves it, given the days she's been having. She deserves a laugh and a smoke.

WELDON: Absolutely. She is not trying to make Sandra likable. She's just succeeding in making Sandra real.

MONDELLO: Yeah, part of the reason that she seems so real, I think, is that, you know, you see - Huller is remarkable in that you can read her eyes in ways that are - she's a cinema actress, right? I mean...

CHOUDHURY: Absolutely.

MONDELLO: She's just designed for it. And you see things flashing in her eyes, especially when she seems to be searching for the word and then shifts languages. You realize that she's got this thought, and she wants to express it, and it's not possible in whatever language she's in at that moment. You believe everything about her, which is why it's so fascinating that the guilt or innocence question is so hard to read. I mean, you really do feel like you know what she's thinking.

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah. And it's not just the eyes, right? Like, there are parts of the film that's, like, honing in on her mouth as she's talking. And I agree, if it was somebody else, I would have probably lost interest in the film hours ago.

WELDON: Yeah. And, Bob, you mentioned the kid, played by Milo Machado Graner. That kid is just fantastic. At some point, he becomes the crux of the film.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

WELDON: We see him in real time learning things about his parents that no kid should learn in so public a way. And the smart thing about it is he cannot see that everybody in the courtroom is staring at him to get his reaction to what he's learning, but the actor shows us that this kid can feel them looking at him...

MONDELLO: Right.

WELDON: ...Feel that. It's just such a small but such a powerful moment in the film.

MONDELLO: I was blown away by him. I thought he was really extraordinary. I think it's - we tend to focus on Huller because - well, because she's masterful. But that child is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of suspense in the film. You really don't know which way he's going to shift and what he's discovering. And I think he was 12 when he was filming it.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

MONDELLO: Wow. I can't imagine some of that. There's a moment where he's talking to the judge, and the judge is talking about how she's going to make him leave the courtroom for a little bit because they have to be able to talk about what's going on in the marriage without worrying about how it affects him. And she says, I don't want it to hurt you. And he says, I've already been hurt.

WELDON: Yeah.

MONDELLO: And I just thought, oh. Oh, you know?

CHOUDHURY: Yeah. But he also says that I'm going to obsess over this and look at social media...

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: ...And read stuff online.

MONDELLO: That's right.

CHOUDHURY: You know, I think it's better for all of us if you just let me into the room instead of me - you know, what we would say in America - doomscrolling my mother's life. Yeah.

WELDON: This film contains a fascinating use of an instrumental version of the 50 Cent song "P.I.M.P." Bedatri, any thoughts on its use?

CHOUDHURY: Well, first of all, as someone who can also sleep through anything, I absolutely believe Sandra Huller when she says - Sandra Huller's character - when she said she just slept through her husband playing that song, which I think some reviewers note that could probably bring in an avalanche, it's so loud, given where they are. And I think it's an interesting choice of song because, of course, you know, it's called "P.I.M.P." It feeds into the misogyny you want to be the cause of this apparent alleged murder, perhaps. Like, oh, my husband is so misogynist. He listens to 50 Cent, so I killed him. It's funny. It's funny that that is the song, but again, like, you know, Neon playing at multinationalism, perhaps. But I was also...

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: ...Reading an interview somewhere where Triet says that she was going back and forth between "Jolene" and this song. And I...

WELDON: Oh, yeah.

CHOUDHURY: ...Would love to be in the room...

WELDON: Yeah (laughter).

CHOUDHURY: ...Where this song wins.

WELDON: Oh, "Jolene" would be really - a little too on the nose.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

MONDELLO: Yeah.

WELDON: Bob, any 50 Cent thoughts?

MONDELLO: Not 50 Cent thoughts. I was thinking about what the character of Sandra does later with music. Remember when the kid is sitting at the piano, and she has been forbidden to talk about the trial with him? And he's pounding away at the piano, and she sees his stress and goes over and sits next to him and sort of gently guides him into Chopin instead of what he's playing. And it's a lovely moment. It's really evocative, and she doesn't have to say a word. She takes him to a quieter place, and it's lovely. And it's entirely musical, and I guess it signifies that Justine Triet knows what she's doing with music.

WELDON: Yep. Absolutely. All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "Anatomy Of A Fall." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Bedatri D. Choudhury, Bob Mondello, thank you both for being here.

MONDELLO: It was great.

CHOUDHURY: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. And it's always such a pleasure hashing out films with Bob and you, Glen.

WELDON: I appreciate that. We appreciate it, too.

MONDELLO: I agree.

WELDON: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima, Liz Metzger and Thomas Lu and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.

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