This review contains mild spoilers for Anatomy of a Fall.
There’s a moment in Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or-winning courtroom drama when I stopped caring if the protagonist had killed her husband.
Sandra is a German writer living in France. Her husband falls from the top floor of their house and Sandra’s lawyer is tasked with convincing the court it was suicide instead of murder. During this moment where I stopped caring, he describes Sandra’s husband’s imagined psychology in painful detail. As he speaks, Sandra’s son listens, every word increasing the young boy’s hurt.
Why do we have trials? Punishment? Prevention? An attempt to enforce our societies’ values? France’s approach to justice may differ slightly from the US, but they share a misguided momentum. There are two sides — one seeking a guilty verdict, the other an acquittal — and each side does whatever they can to win. People’s lives are turned into a game.
There is an argument for Sandra’s guilt. There is not an argument that the possibility of her guilt makes the trial that occurs better for society. She is made to suffer. Her son is made to suffer. Everyone in their life is made to suffer. All this when they’re already mourning the loss of another. Most of us can agree that murder is wrong. More of us should agree the way our societies handle murder — handle all crime — is even worse.
Anatomy of a Fall is invigorating as a character drama. Sandra Hüller in the lead role is a revelation and she’s nearly matched by the entire supporting cast. Triet’s style that shook with promise in Sybil settles here into its fulfilled potential. The two-and-a-half hour runtime clips along with the excitement one might expect from the crime genre. And yet, the film’s greatest strength is how severely it rebukes that genre and its sibling genre: the courtroom drama. As Sandra’s lawyer states early in the film, the point is not whether she is guilty or innocent. The court doesn’t care about truth — it cares about story.
One story the prosecutor tells is about Sandra’s bisexuality. Six months prior to her husband’s death, Sandra cheated on him with a woman. The cheating is used as evidence of her duplicitousness — as if breaking the seventh commandment also breaks the sixth. The person’s gender makes this even worse as the prosecutor feeds on a classic stereotype. He frames Sandra as a conniving bisexual woman who emasculated her husband and then pushed him to his death.
During this moment, I thought about Amber Heard. I thought about how quickly the public bought a story about another conniving bisexual. I thought about how Heard’s older, wealthier, and more famous ex-husband used the court itself as a weapon against her. I thought about how it worked.
What’s the point of a court that can itself be used as a weapon? How is that kind of system a harbinger of justice?
Triet portrays the cruelty of the court and the cruelty of the media that makes money off of it. But what makes the film such an effective abolitionist text is that it never gets lost in politics. By presenting reality with an eye toward character, the movie achieves more than if it had set out to prove the French legal system — and all our similar legal systems — should not exist.
Film and television has been representing the courtroom and the justice system for decades. Too often this work is more concerned with tight plotting and satisfying conclusions. Between Anatomy of a Fall, After the Fire, which also showed at this past TIFF, and last year’s Saint Omer, it feels like this is finally starting to change. These three French films point to a different kind of legal drama — an anti-legal drama. The question is no longer guilt or innocence. The films are more concerned with the reasons people — and the state — commit acts of violence and our responses to this violence after it occurs.
Focusing on character over plot and human beings over punishment might allow us to end our cycles of violence. The only people we’re hurting are ourselves.
Anatomy of a Fall is now playing in select theatres.