Anatomy of a Fall

A family living in a mountain chalet in the French Alps near Grenoble.  Mother Sandra, father Samuel and 11-year-old son Daniel.  And there’s their beautiful blue-eyed black and white Samoyed dog, Snoop. 

When we first meet them Sandra is downstairs with a young journalism student who’s sought her out to interview her, Sandra being a writer.  The mood is relaxed and friendly.  Sandra is drinking wine and they are getting along well but there is very loud music and a lot of banging coming from upstairs.  (The music, incidentally, is an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P of all things.)

It’s husband Samuel upstairs, supposedly listening to music while he works on renovating the chalet.  But he seems to be deliberately trying to derail the interview, putting the music on repeat and constantly upping the volume.  Sandra and her young admirer barely get past the preliminaries when Sandra apologises, saying further conversation will be impossible and she’ll call the girl at some future more suitable time.

The boy Daniel goes off for a walk in the snow with Snoop.  At some point before he leaves the house he hears his parents talking to one another – not angrily but loud enough to be heard over the music. 

We follow Daniel and Snoop for a while and when they come back to the chalet they find the father Samuel’s body lying on the snow, dead of a bleeding head wound. 

Was it an accident? Did he commit suicide?  Or did she kill him, she being the only one with him in the house at the time. 

The circumstances of Samuel’s death are minutely investigated:  the position of the body, the pattern of blood spatter, the layout of the chalet, and of course the recent history of the marital relationship, to determine whether Sandra had a motive to kill her husband. 

She is charged and put on trial. 

Much of the story takes place in the courtroom, where the implications of the forensic evidence are made clear and the emotional dynamics of the family are laid bare in excruciating detail in cross-examination, in flashbacks, in documents and letters, in recordings made on the husband’s phone, and in the testimony of young Daniel, of Samuel’s therapist, and of the visiting student.   

One of the virtues of this story is the way we as viewers are challenged to make sense of what we have seen in the same way that the characters have to.  We doubt our recollections just as they do.   Moments that seemed irrelevant at the time come to have a significance that we just can’t ignore, whatever our preconceptions and prejudices might be. 

(My own prejudice was that I would gladly have murdered him over that business with the music, but don’t let that sway you.)

Sandra Huller as Sandra and Swann Arlaud as her friend and lawyer Vincent

Another virtue of Anatomy is the depiction of the workings of the French criminal justice system.  As a former criminal lawyer myself, it occurred to me, and not for the first time, that the European criminal justice system is in many ways superior to the common law system we inherited from the British.  The European system is inquisitorial in nature.  All relevant evidence is admissible.   In contrast, our system is accusatorial, and criminal trials tend to be spectacles of gladiatorial combat between prosecution and defence lawyers.   One side wins, someone has to lose. 

There is a somewhat rueful piece of legal wisdom, occasionally voiced even by our own criminal justice pundits, that if you are guilty, you are better off being tried under the British system, where you can take advantage of technicalities, but if you are innocent, you are better off under the European system, where a criminal trial is a more rational quest for the truth. 

But I digress.  Anatomy of a Fall is both a gripping courtroom drama and an absorbing psychological one, which manages to hold our interest for all of its 150 minutes.  It deservedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the recent Academy Awards.  

‘Snoop’ at the Oscars.