Anatomy of a Fall: What Really Happened in the French Alps?

Sandra Hüller and Swann Arlaud in Anatomy of a Fall (Neon)

When Samuel Maleski falls to his death from his chalet balcony in the French alps, there are no witnesses. And there is little forensic evidence, other than the points of impact to his body and the traceable pattern of the fall. But after authorities interrogate Samuel’s wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller), they indict her and schedule a trial. The judge releases her on bail but appoints a supervisor for her 11-year-old son Daniel to ensure that Sandra will not try to influence his testimony.

Anatomy of a Fall is a French film, mostly in English but with an easy European pace, starring a handful of intriguing characters. The opening scene shows two women enjoying an informal conversation, which we learn is an interview of Sandra by a magazine reporter. But upstairs, Samuel is listening to loud music that keeps getting louder, so the reporter has to leave. We can only speculate that in Sandra’s marriage, the honeymoon is over.

Milo Machado-Graner as Daniel

Young Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) is a wonderful character. He’s lovable, caring, responsible, perceptive, independent, and wise beyond his years. Ever since the accident that impaired his vision, he relies on Snoop, his cuddly Border Collie who provides companionship and guides his daily walk. Daniel is a gifted musician, learning to play the piano by ear. Also, he thinks like a lawyer. In one of his finest moments, he fights the court’s decision to ban his attendance at the trial. He argues with irrefutable conviction against each reason to keep him out, while defending his right and need to be there. And he wins.

Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud) is another superb character. He’s Sandra’s longtime friend and trial lawyer who defends her case. Renzi is a kind, gentle, and highly competent professional you can trust, the kind of guy who could give you a fighting chance next time you’re accused of a crime. But first, Renzi tries to teach Sandra about reality versus courtroom reality. Because in a trial, the only perception that matters is what the jury believes.

Eventually, the courtroom becomes a kind of home base for this pensive film. Unlike an episode of Law & Order, where a trial is tightly contained within a few screen minutes, this small film moves at its own methodical pace; two hours and 31 minutes seems just the right length to reveal what viewers need to know, with no drag time.

Sandra Huller in Anatomy of a Fall

Also worth noting, certain of our trial rules seem more relaxed in France. For example, American courtrooms tend to limit a witness’s response to the shortest, most direct answer without volunteering additional information (presumably that the jury shouldn’t hear). But in this French courtroom, the accused (Sandra) is permitted to elaborate at length, which also adds backstory detail to the film. Another surprising moment is when Sandra directly addresses a witness that her lawyer is cross-examining, to correct his misguided conclusion. In a U.S. courtroom, the defendant would have no such opportunity.

Directed and co-written by celebrated French filmmaker Justine Triet, Anatomy of a Fall was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Picture. It also launched Snoop the dog (whose real name is Messi) into a Hollywood canine star.

Like any criminal proceedings worth their legal fees, a trial creates trauma. And a fire-breathing prosecutor can torch your life into ashes in front of a jury of your peers. Or in this case, in front of your child. Which is why Sandra tries to assure Daniel that his mother is not a monster. Guilty or not, who among us could survive this process?