Broken Codes

There is an ironic term for a piece of cinema that combines weighty themes with an imposing style: un grand film. Several recent Palme d’Or winners merit the appellation: Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2019), Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2020), Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022). These are works that strive for ‘relevance’, often at the expense of psychological depth or aesthetic subtlety. Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall – the latest film to be awarded the prize – adheres to the same criteria. Triet, however, is less interested in mounting a schematic critique of inequality than her confères. Her subject is the cosmopolitan European family, and beyond it, other institutions of bourgeois life.

The film unfolds as follows: Sandra (Sandra Hüller), a German writer, her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their visually impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) live near Samuel’s hometown in the Alps. Returning from a walk with his guide dog, Daniel stumbles upon Samuel’s body outside their house. It is unclear whether Daniel has happened upon a murder, suicide or accident. Sandra is charged, and a courtroom drama begins. Evidence is sparse; attention turns to Sandra’s infidelities, Samuel’s jealousies. Her work is highly acclaimed, while he is struggling with his first novel. On the day he died, she was being interviewed in their living room; he was upstairs blasting music to disrupt the meeting. Samuel was additionally paralysed by guilt, blaming himself for the accident that blinded Daniel. Sandra, for her part, regretted leaving their life in London. These resentments erupted in a screaming match the day before Samuel’s death, later found to have been recorded on his phone.

The result is a two-hour-long exercise in haute vulgarisation, in which art-house tropes and trappings are combined with those more familiar from the made-for-TV movie. Triet has said she drew inspiration from the case of Amanda Knox, accused of murdering her roommate Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007 – already the subject of a TV movie as well as a Netflix documentary. The conventions of the whodunnit – a bird’s-eye view of the corpse in the snow, the arrival of police, the painstaking reconstruction of the incident – are mobilized to full effect. In this regard, Anatomy of a Fall is only superficially distinct from the better products of the recent true-crime boom, where viewers are invited to pass judgement on real-life mysteries. Triet, though, has loftier conceptual ambitions. Samuel’s fall metonymizes the fall of the modern male; the court case probes the contemporary status of the family and the law, as well as – more obliquely – the novel and the cinema.

In the film’s diagnosis, these institutions have fallen into a state of disorder. Reconstruction of the truth is conspicuously absent from the trial; questions of legal guilt appear casually relative. The rise of trial-by-media and its pas de deux with the true crime format appear to have produced a qualitative change: the purpose of true crime, after all, is not to uncover what happened, but to relish in the process itself. Triet’s court has a purely mediatic function, presenting wife and husband as sleazy characters rather than legal subjects.

The nuclear family is afflicted by a parallel breakdown. The free-spirited middle class to which the protagonists belong has rejected conventional marital roles, yet this is not depicted as progress: the scrambling of domestic codes has instead resulted in turmoil. Samuel struggles to share his life with a successful woman, Sandra to tolerate her husband’s closer relationship with their son. And while the great bourgeois form, the novel, was once capable – in Hegel’s words – of neutralizing the ‘conflict between the poetry of the heart and the opposing prose of circumstances’, Sandra’s experimental, interior, achronological novels do no such thing. The prosecution claims to find incriminating details in her work, at one point citing a character who expresses the desire to get rid of their spouse. A nucleus of ‘truth’ is sought in her slippery autofiction but proves stubbornly elusive. The novel is now a world unto itself, and can no longer shed light on our own.

Anatomy of a Fall thus depicts a society that claims to have moved beyond shared codes – generating new and unstable ones in the process. As viewer, we are placed in a position where we are expected to resolve such disorder ­– if only we could ascertain if Sandra did it. But all the while Triet conveys the impossibility of this task. For the authority of the cinema is also under threat, its engulfment by the streaming industry embodied in the film’s very form. At its conclusion, Daniel, like a blind Tiresias, tells the court that he has just remembered a conversation he had with his father some months earlier, in which Samuel seemed to confess that he was preparing to take his own life. This, we are led to assume, is an expedient fiction. Only such an act of symbolic patricide can bring the chaos of rival narratives to an end.

A gentrified television film, though, cannot easily transcend the bounds of its genre. If its true subject is bourgeois polycrisis, the film’s reliance on received ideas means this cannot be dealt with effectively. Ultimately, its depiction of gender relations is a tissue of conservative cliches – the sapphic feminist, the splenetic macho. An egalitarian marriage is apparently unworkable due to some ‘repressed’ male essence. Triet insists on raising social ‘issues’, but the result is still an upmarket family film.

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘What’s Your Place?’, NLR 136.