• YEAR: 2023
  • DIRECTOR: Justine Triet
  • KEY ACTORS: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Samuel Theis
  • IMDB SCORE: 7.7

SEX SCORE: 2.5/5
✔️ It is rewatchable and fascinating each time!
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast. They’re all kind of awful people…
❌ And similarly, it didn’t inspire fantasies. Its just not that type of movie.
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test without too much trouble.
❓As is often the case, the sex positive question is difficult. I’m going to say it is sex positive but that is pretty dependent on my interpretation of the whole film!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (from £4.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

I presume if you’re reading this that you’ve seen Anatomy of a Fall. If you haven’t yet, I don’t believe that this review will be as spoiler-filled as some because it has a simple plot asking a simple question but doesn’t provide an answer, leaving the viewer to make up their own mind. The movie simply asks, did Sandra kill her husband?

But I’d urge you to watch it before you read on. If only because, in the year since its release, I’ve become fascinated by how people answer that question and what I think it says about their feminism and their understanding of our gendered world, and I’d love to know what you think before you hear my rant. Do you think she did it? More, do you think she’s capable of murder? What makes you think that of her? And why?

Anatomy of a Fall is a movie about Sandra (Hüller), a successful German novelist who lives in the Alps to live with her French husband, Samuel (Theis), and their son, Daniel (Machado-Graner), who has visual impairment following an accident a few years ago that occurred when he was being looked after by his father. Samuel is also a writer but his own career is floundering and so he has chosen to stay home to school Daniel and renovate their house. (It’s not clear whether this decision is a consequence of his writing difficulties or their cause. ) Early in the movie, Samuel falls to his death from an upper floor window and Sandra is accused of his murder. Anatomy of a Fall then becomes a standard courtroom drama, although somewhat novel as it is set in a French court and so is very different from the normal US/Hollywood structure of a trial. During proceedings, the prosecutor dissects Sandra and Samuel’s marriage, Sandra’s personality and choices, her past infidelities, and Samuel’s mental health, in his attempt to prove her guilt. It’s brutal and difficult to watch, but Sandra is eventually exonerated when Daniel testifies about his father’s state of mind and backs up his mother’s statements. But we are never shown a ‘true’ version of events; never explicitly told what happened. We are left to decide for ourselves whether we think justice has been done.

An image from Anatomy of a Fall of Sandra standing in the courtroom

I’ve come to realise that Anatomy of a Fall has become a bit of a feminist litmus test for me. While I was pleased to see that both the Guardian and New York Times had female critics writing their main reviews, when listening to the more general discussion and discourse about this movie, it seems that too many male critics don’t understand what Justine Triet was trying to do with her film – or at least, don’t seem to understand what I saw in the film. As an example, in a deep dive episode on Anatomy of a Fall on The Big Picture podcast, Sean Fennessey asked Amanda Dobbins, his co-host, if he had ‘failed a test’ with his interpretation and I really think he did! By his second viewing, Fennessey had become convinced that Sandra had done it. She had killed her husband, and he even went as far as calling her a sociopath and accusing her of being a bad mother. It’s obviously possible that I am the one misreading this movie, but I feel that Fennessey has absolutely fallen for the trap that Triet set. He has vocalised the opinion of the patriarchy, and opinions like this are exactly why Anatomy of a Fall was made!

Because I really don’t think that a renowned female director made a film about a successful woman who has chosen to live ‘like a man’ – putting professional success above family life, being aloof and cold rather than warm and ‘motherly,’ having affairs when not sexually satisfied at home – and the point of that film was that this woman was evil and should be punished.

I know always look for feminist messages in movies but it seems obvious to me that Triet was trying to show us that this is how women are treated regardless of whether they deserve it and they are punished for not complying to patriarchal standards. Anatomy of a Fall represents an exaggeration of what all successful women experience – we are told that we must be bitches to get ahead professionally, we must be bad mothers to leave our children at home, we must be bad partners if we don’t have dinner on the table when our men get home. And I find it genuinely quite upsetting how many men have watched the film and agreed that we all deserve what we get!

Sandra Huller as Sandra from Anatomy of a Fall

And I don’t think I’m interpreting Anatomy of a Fall incorrectly because it is a movie where, if the gender roles were swapped, there would be no plot. All of the drama arises from how it challenges our assumptions about what a wife or mother should be and how a husband or father is supposed to act. Trying to judge a marriage from the outside is an almost impossible task because, as Amy Nicholson wrote in the New York Times, ‘if any of us were forced to defend our incongruities and fibs — the fights we avoid, the compromises that make us quietly seethe — we’d all be convicted of irreconcilable contradictions. (Still a lesser crime than murder.)‘ But this is what the prosecution try to do and, to steal another quote from another great critic, Wendy Ide for the Guardian, ‘Triet seeds the film with questions about divisions of labour, about the role of the wife within marriage and about society’s profound discomfort around a woman who not only takes what she wants from life, but refuses to apologise for it.

There is a key scene in the middle of the trial where the prosecutor presents a recording that Samuel has made of an argument between him and Sandra. Ignoring the consent issues and the strong likelihood that Samuel was stoking an argument to create content for his own creative project, this argument is used both to show the antagonism and violence within their relationship and to show the judge and jury ‘what kind of woman’ Sandra is.  In the argument, Samuel complains about how parenthood has stalled his career and he wants the time he has committed to his son back. He complains about how Sandra’s career has flourished because he has kept their home together, that she has (consensually) taken his ideas and profited from them. The prosecution hope that you’ll sympathise with Samuel, that Sandra’s attitudes reveal ‘devious character flaws that make her capable of murder.

But can you imagine if the roles would be reversed? If a wife was complaining to their husband about how their career has been affected by parenthood and domestic labour? I mean, there is no complaint; this is the basis of the gender pay gap! And as for her taking credit for his ideas, men so often take credit for a woman’s work that the phenomenon even has a name – the Matilda Effect. Margaret Keane had to take her husband to court to be credited for her famous big eyed paintings; Colette and The Wife are movies written about husband’s taking credit for their wives’ writing; and I dread to think how many men in history are only remembered because of the work of their now forgotten wives. When the wife complains about the actions of their husband, it is a non-issue. It’s a legitimate source of feminist complaint but it’s one that is legitimised by society. And, importantly, it wouldn’t be used as a weapon against him.

But, of course, the roles have been reversed in Anatomy of a Fall; Sandra has chosen not to automatically fulfil the domestic role and Samuel has chosen to take on more parenting than he perhaps needs in his decision to home-school their son. And I’d argue that the growing professional inequality between them is much more of a source of danger for Sandra than a reason for her to kill him.  As Ishmeet Nagpal wrote for Mediadiversity, what happens when it is the husband and father, the patriarch, who is left behind? ‘How big will his resentment grow, and what wounds must his ego receive?

There is an alternate angle to this fight that is also very telling about the position of women in heterosexual marriages. Astonishingly, legal reforms were only made in 2008 that prevented men from claiming they were provoked by a nagging wife as a defence for murder! So, as the roles are reversed, does that mean Sandra is justified in killing Samuel? There is absolutely no way that any court would accept that defence from a woman, and it is absolutely unforgivable that men have used it to get away with murder in the past!

And I absolutely love that Triet has chosen to explore these gendered assumptions with a character like Sandra – an unapologetic and frankly unlikeable character. I have recently started reading Anna Bogutskaya’s book about exactly that. Called ‘Unlikeable Female Characters: The Women Pop Culture Wants You to Hate,’ she discusses the importance of these tropes in popular culture – the Bitch, the Slut, the Mean Girl, the Trainwreck etc – and what our response to them in movies says about how we treat women in real life. I’ve only just started reading it (so expect more insights to turn up in future!) but I was reminded of Anatomy of a Fall and Sandra when reading this quote by Terri White in the foreword: ‘Because to me, likeability means palatability. And specifically, how palatable these characters are to a patriarchal world that in many cases still like its women—both fictional and otherwise—to be supine and silent.’

Sandra is defiantly not silent. She argues back, she stands her ground, and she never plays a victim or conforms to the ‘role of victimhood that the accused woman is expected to play.’ Triet and Hüller never give Sandra a moment where, as the viewer, we understand her or empathise with her but, as I’ve said before, none of this makes her a murderer. It makes her difficult and maybe a bad wife, but not an evil person.

And I’m interested in what Sandra’s choices – and our reactions to them – say about her and about society’s expectations of women. The fact her sexuality is used against her is nothing new – Sandra is bisexual and has had affairs with women during her marriage, which is sadly used to make her seem untrustworthy in clear cut biphobia – but it is her parenting style and how that changes our impression of her that really interests me. Namely that Sandra gives Daniel as much space as he needs and always does what he asks, which should be a positive trait but is somehow used to make her seem cold and like a bad mother. As an example, Daniel asked for time apart during the trial, which she gives him, and she calls him after she has been found not guilty to ask if she can come home. Daniel asks for more time, which she gives him…by going out for dinner and celebratory drinks with her friends. Should she have overruled her son’s wishes and come home anyway to be with him? Is an 11 year old able to know what he really needs? The trial must have been beyond traumatic for Daniel so there is an argument that she should have gone to him as soon as she was able to ensure she was there when he was ready and to demonstrate her love through her physical presence, but I have to admit that I was impressed by her restraint. With her understanding of her son and her willingness to overcome what must have been a strong desire to go home and hold him and tell him that it was going to be OK, and to give Daniel the time he needed. That she used that time celebrating doesn’t really matter to me. What was she supposed to do?

An image from Anatomy of a Fall of Daniel

The intrinsic sexism and biphobia of Anatomy of a Fall is so blatant to me that I can’t help but feel disappointment when others don’t see it, and Triet can only have done it on purpose: ‘As the prosecution proceeds to dissect Sandra’s sexuality, professional accomplishments, and her competence as a mother, Triet subtly forces the audience to contend with their own perceptions of what makes a woman “good” or “bad,” a victim or a murderer.

Maybe I am too quick to side with the woman in an argument about culpability in heterosexual relationships. I do choose to #BelieveWomen or whatever the latest hashtag might be – I am finishing writing this while watching the French Open tennis and can’t help but think about how Alexander Zverev is currently on trial for domestic abuse of an ex-girlfriend, Brenda Patea and another ex-girlfriend, Olga Sharypova, made similar accusations in 2021, and yet nothing has really been done about it within the tennis world. Until he has been found guilty, no one believes them.

Which is a luxury that Sandra is not offered. In a final quote from Ishmeet Nagpal’s piece for Mediadiversity: ‘It’s no secret that the world believes men more than women, so it is quite genius that Anatomy of a Fall asks the viewer to pick a side based on subjective testimony.

So who do you believe? What do you think happened?

The image from the poster of Anatomy of the Fall of Samuel's body with Sandra and Daniel standing by

(My opinion? Samuel is an idiot and fell to his death. It wasn’t suicide, it wasn’t murder. It was the fatal stumbling of an angry man near an open window.)

NEXT TIME… How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

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