The Most Important Relationship in “Anatomy of a Fall” Is Between Mother and Son

This essay about Anatomy of a Fall is part of a series of deep-dive works of criticism about films nominated for the 2024 Oscars released the week before the ceremony. 

There’s a monologue from Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall that’s gone viral on Twitter. (This is the modern way to engage with movies on the Internet.) It’s the one where Sandra and Samuel are fighting, the one where he accuses her of stealing his ideas in her work, where she accuses him of resenting her for having the courage to produce work, the one that is presented as evidence in the court proceeding where she’s accused of his murder.

Awards and audiences alike are known to reserve flowers for the loud scenes, so I get why this is the moment people have shared. But there is another scene, a quieter scene, that houses the entire point of the film.

The Attorney General is attempting to goad Sandra. He wants to prove to the jury that she had a clear motive for killing Samuel. He asks if she resented her husband for causing their son’s blindness. After being pressed, she admits that yes, for a few days she did. “You only blamed him for a few days?” he asks, incredulous.

She clarifies that she was upset for a few days about his responsibility. The reason she continued to resent her husband was that he seemed to want to view Daniel as a victim. “I never saw Daniel as handicapped, you know?” she explains. “I wanted to protect him from that perception, because as soon as you mark a child that way, you condemn them to not see his life as his own; whereas he should feel it’s the best life because it’s the only life he’s got. It is his own. He reads books, he goes on social media, like any other kid. He plays the piano, he dreams, he cries, he laughs. He’s a very lively kid. He’s okay, yeah? So perhaps I resented Samuel for projecting his own pain onto Daniel.”

This moment reveals that Sandra truly loved Samuel. It put any doubt I had of her feelings to rest. How else could she stand to only be upset about his responsibility in Daniel’s accident for a few days? It also shows that her priority was to raise her child to believe in his own sense of agency, that she was upset Samuel could let his guilt get in the way of that. In fact, she even tells Samuel this in the fight he recorded the day before his death. “(Daniel’s) telling you what you want to hear. He can feel your guilt and he’s trying to reassure you. Don’t you see that? You’ve never stopped feeling guilty about him.”

Samuel’s view of himself as a perpetual victim did not affect only him, but caused him to project the status of either victim or perpetrator onto everyone around him.

There is resentment, yes, but I don’t view Samuel’s resentment of Sandra as the nucleus of the film, nor is it a story excavating a loveless marriage. I had even seen arguments that Samuel was threatened by Sandra’s bisexuality, and as much as I’d find it hilarious that a character killed himself because of his bi wife, I don’t buy it. It’s not her sexuality that bothered him as much as it was her inexplicable agency to act. If he’s threatened by her sexuality, it’s as an extension of that agency. The bisexuality is illegible to him because of her casual will to do things. When she sleeps with other people, she doesn’t even see it as a betrayal to their sexless marriage. She sees it as an attempt to make a marriage with a man consumed by fear sustainable for her.

More interesting than Sandra’s relationship to Samuel is her relationship to Daniel. To his father, Daniel is a burden to care for, but to his mother, he is a normal teenager. He is making sense of that split reality in real time during the trial.

I want to believe that hearing Sandra talk about him helped shake any doubt he held, any doubt instilled in him by the French criminal justice system. Perhaps it’s learning that his dad once attempted suicide that jogs his memory of the dog ingesting aspirin, but it’s his mother’s testimony that must’ve informed his self-assuredness. He independently goes to the judge and asks to testify without contacting his mother or her lawyer. Even in a time of high stress, he asks for space from her as he tries to make sense of his memory. Even in a time where he needs his mother most, he makes the choice to separate, to ensure the court trusts his testimony is free from tampering. Hurt as she is by the separation, Sandra doesn’t question his motivation or demand an explanation.

The attitude he inherited from his mother, the one of independence and agency, comes through, not just for him, but for Sandra’s acquittal. Neither Sandra nor Daniel are afraid of the other. Neither Sandra nor Daniel view the other as placing imposition. The idea that Daniel created a false testimony to protect his mother is silly. That’s not congruent with the rest of his relationship to her. In fact, arguably, it’s only with his mother that he has ever felt relieved of the responsibility to reassure.

The first time I heard people posing the question of whether or not Sandra killed her husband, I thought it was a joke. To me, it was obvious the court drama was just set dressing for something more complicated.

In the context of a fight, it sounded differently, but, “I see you very clearly. I just don’t see you as a victim,” is a declaration of love.

Anatomy of a Fall is now available to rent

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Aamina Inayat Khan

Aamina Inayat Khan is a culture writer in Brooklyn, NY. You can find their other work at Teen Vogue, Vogue, the Cut, W Mag, The New York Times, and on Substack. Follow on Instagram and Twitter at @aaminasdfghjkl

Aamina has written 4 articles for us.

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