Oscar Watch 2023: Anatomy of a Fall


It’s been something of a trip to go into these Best Picture nominees with next to no information. The only thing I knew about Anatomy of a Fall before I watched it was that dog actor Messi had become an internet sensation. He was originally barred from attending the Oscars, but was eventually allowed in and even attended the show. He sat like a good boy for the duration of the event. He’s also barely in the film, but who doesn’t love dogs?

Anyway, I was not aware that this was a predominantly French language feature. I also had no clue that courtroom dramas were even still a thing. I believe the last one I saw was maybe the remake of The Manchurian Candidate back in 2004. Needless to say, my first impression was that Anatomy of a Fall was nominated simply because it looks and sounds artsy. It’s recalling an old type of movie that isn’t done much anymore and it has some intense conversations where little is said, but the dialogue doesn’t end for 15 minutes. It’s pure Oscar bait.

Once I got into the film, however, that idea faded. Much like how its main characters Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and Samuel (Samuel Theis) had a strained relationship that slowly boiled over time into something violent, Anatomy of a Fall slowly drip-feeds information to the viewer that eventually explodes into an intense court drama where you’re uncertain of what is truth. This isn’t a particularly new idea for a movie, but the presentation of it and the acting from its principal cast are what captivate you to keep going.

Anatomy of a Fall

© Le Pacte

The beginning of the film indicates that there is some trouble in paradise, so to speak. A young student named Zoé (Camille Rutherford) comes to the home of Sandra Voyter to interview her for an undisclosed project. During their conversation, Sandra’s unseen husband Samuel blares his music loudly, drowning out any potential conversation. Fans of 50 Cent will know the song is an instrumental version of “P.I.M.P.” and that actually does come up later on in the film. Anyway, Sandra expresses some frustration with her husband’s habits and reschedules the interview for another day.

While all of this is transpiring, Sandra and Samuel’s son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) proceeds to take their dog, Snoop (Messi), for a walk. Daniel is visually impaired, so he needs to feel his way around certain spots to not get lost. Walking around for an unspecified amount of time, Daniel comes home to find his father dead in front of the house, seemingly having fallen from the attic window (hence, the title of the film). Sandra comes out to console her son and the police eventually arrive, kicking off the story.

I suppose I lied a little about not knowing anything about Anatomy of a Fall before watching. The description on Hulu specifically mentions a “murder,” so that put my mind into the thought that Sandra was going to eventually be accused of killing her husband. That does happen, leading into the courtroom segments in the second half, but the way that Anatomy of a Fall doles out information is transformative to how you understand its characters. It also carefully leads you to make conclusions before you might be ready, questioning the very nature of the legal system.

© Le Pacte

I think the idea is that Daniel is meant to be the audience surrogate here. Since he has a visual impairment and his father’s music was blaring loudly, he doesn’t quite have all of the information. During the investigation into his father’s death, the police obviously question Daniel and he can’t accurately recall certain bits. Since he feels around to find his way, he swears by the feel of the tape outside on the shed that he was standing outside the window when his parents were talking. Turns out, that wasn’t quite right and he was actually inside. This casts doubt on Daniel’s recollection and, in turn, puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position to possibly doubt the child.

I wouldn’t say that Anatomy of a Fall dabbles with an unreliable narrator, but it’s very engaging to watch the film obfuscate some facts until they become necessary. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking Sandra was asleep while Daniel was out as there is no reason to think otherwise. When a hidden recorded argument is found that puts Sandra and Samuel in a very violent altercation the day before, doubt is once again cast. Could Sandra have possibly murdered her husband?

One thing I’ve seen repeated in various reviews and critiques over the last few days is that Anatomy of a Fall deals with the lopsided gender dynamics in a relationship. I do believe that is a part of what’s at play here. The pivotal conversation that acts as a lynchpin in the court case focuses on Sandra and Samuel blaming each other for their problems. Sandra believes she has made too many concessions to Samuel’s wants while Samuel states that Sandra’s need to control has suffocated the will out of him. There is a layer of fear to Sandra’s accusations and Samuel seems so unsure of himself, that you get the sense that any of Sandra’s “bad behaviors” are an attack just to provoke him.

© Le Pacte

Where this all came together, for me, was within the court case. I must admit, I wasn’t sure if I dug Anatomy of a Fall all that much during the first 90 minutes. That’s quite a long time to be watching a film while not being interested, but that slow pacing is 100% deliberate. When you get to the court case, having lived with these characters for such an extended period makes the proceedings feel visceral and brutal. Poor Daniel, as well, is learning so many uncomfortable details about his parents’ personal lives that you can’t help but feel pity.

Before that conversation is played in court, you never actually see Samuel as a person. We saw his deceased body outside the house in the opening, but that’s it. Everything else is merely a memory or a personal account of who he was and how he acted. At key points during the trial, we get flashes to Sandra potentially killing Samuel and some shots of Daniel interacting with a faceless version of his dad until the conversation is pulled out. Then, Samuel is in full view.

As I like to think, this is probably Daniel trying to picture what happened between his parents. When the conversation turns violent, the camera cuts back to the courtroom and we merely hear the audio while looking at everyone’s gasping faces. In all likelihood, Daniel simply cannot process his parents lashing out at each other. He has to channel it out to save his own psyche.

© Le Pacte

That one choice, however, puts the viewer in a tough position. If we had seen the fight visually play out, we would have a clear answer as to who is guilty or not. For its entire runtime, Anatomy of a Fall never tells you what is “right” or “wrong.” There are inconsistencies and the very nature of memory as a small snapshot of life is questioned, but the audience has to make up its mind when it comes to the truth.

Even when Sandra is acquitted in the end, that doesn’t mean she is innocent. What immediately came to mind was the OJ Simpson trial. I was merely a child when that was happening, but it was national news for months. OJ was eventually acquitted, but he was never able to escape the public perception that he killed his wife. He even penned a novel If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer years later, capitalizing on that societal desire for him to be guilty.

There isn’t much film left after Sandra gets her acquittal, but there is a lingering feeling that the world will not believe she is innocent. Daniel has to choose for himself as explained to him by his court monitor, Marge (Jehnny Beth). If we cannot come to a conclusion with evidence, we must then decide what is true in our hearts. Does Daniel believe his mother was capable of murder or does he believe this really was an accident?

© Le Pacte

There’s a lot more the film does that generates some great discussion, but explaining it all away would rob the film of its power. Anatomy of a Fall may not be my favorite film from this Oscar Nominee list, but its humble intro belied an exceptionally deep film that I didn’t expect to get. It’s masterfully directed, wonderfully acted, and painfully honest in examining the lives of its characters. No one, save for Daniel and Snoop, are purely innocent creatures.

I would implore everyone to give this a shot, even with its protracted 152-minute runtime. Sometimes long films are very meticulously planned and I would say not a single moment is wasted in this movie. It just might take some time before Anatomy of a Fall gets its hooks into you.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.