The winner of the 2023 Palme d’Or honor at the Cannes Film Festival, Anatomy of a Fall is French filmmaker Justine Triet’s study into the complexities of a relationship and the gendered lens through which any major incident can be seen. The plot follows novelist Sandra Voyter, who suddenly has to face legal suspicion and charges of murder after her husband Samuel supposedly falls to his death from the attic of their chalet. Anatomy of a Fall satisfyingly takes its time, maintaining interest and tension throughout, and although it does not necessarily overwhelm with emotions or thoughts, it makes for a thoroughly entertaining watch.
Plot Summary: What is The Film about?
The courtroom drama film Anatomy of a Fall begins with scenes of the very matter that later on takes center stage in the court trials. The setting is a lavish but isolated chalet somewhere near the French city of Grenoble that currently serves as the house of Sandra Voyter, her husband, Samuel Maleski, and their young son, Daniel. As a celebrated author and novelist, Sandra sometimes has students come up to her house for interviews, and the film begins with one such instance, when a young woman named Zoe has come to the chalet for an interview. Zoe is working on some project regarding the writings of Sandra and their links with the author’s life, and she sits down to record her conversation with the protagonist. The author preferred getting this interview done in Grenoble, though, away from her house, and this is later used by the prosecution in the court case.
Very loud music starts to play on a loop inside the house, as if intended to disrupt the very interview. Sandra explains that her husband, Samuel, sometimes plays such loud music while working in his attic. After some time, the interview had to be canceled, for hardly anything could be heard over the loud noise, and Zoe decided to reschedule their meeting. Sometime after the woman leaves, young Daniel also steps out of the house for a walk, along with his guide dog, Snoop. Daniel is partially blind, with very little vision, and so he relies on Snoop’s help in going around. As the boy returns home after his short adventure, Snoop’s frantic behavior makes him realize that something serious has happened. Daniel feels around to realize that his father is lying dead on the ground in front of their house, and he calls out to his mother for help.
The strange death of Samuel Maleski naturally leads to a police investigation into the matter, despite it initially looking as if the man had fallen from the open window in the attic and died. However, some minute details, like blood spatter marks on the roof of a shed just below the window, suggest that the man might have been struck before he fell. Naturally, it is the wife, Sandra, who is the lead and only suspect in the matter, as she was the only one present at the scene at the time. Thus begins an intense court battle against Sandra Voyter, as more details about her marital life make her seem like a possible killer.
How does Sandra defend against the claims against her?
After the investigation into Samuel’s death begins, Sandra calls upon an old friend of hers, Vincent Renzi, to represent her in her trial defense, which would be inevitable. These two characters actually have a history together, for they had been friends for a very long time during their youth. Incidentally, Vincent admits that he had been in love with Sandra during that time, but nothing happened between them because of her disinterest and the two drifted apart following this. Now that they spend time together regarding the case, Vincent remains as professional as he should be, even though his interest in the woman is still slightly felt. As he starts investigating the matter for his own case, Vincent notes how the three blood spatter marks could be used against Sandra, along with a serious-looking bruise on her arm. Sandra claims that she has no idea about the spatter marks and that the bruise was from her habit of regularly brushing her arm against the kitchen counter.
The woman states her own actions on that specific day, starting from when Zoe left the house after the failed interview attempt. Sandra had gone up to the attic to have a word with Samuel, and the two had a brief conversation about what they would do throughout the day. She then came down to her room to work for some time, and then proceeded to fall asleep. The authorities are quick to question how she worked or slept through the very loud music blaring from the attic, and she responds that she often used earplugs in these cases, which were quite common in their house. Sandra was then woken up by the cries of her son, and it was only then that she discovered the death of her husband.
However, the autopsy and the forensic examinations reveal that Samuel already had a deep wound on his head, possibly from some blunt instrument, before he fell to the ground. When the investigation finally leads to a trial a year later, Vincent states on behalf of his client that the wound was probably from Samuel’s heavy fall onto the workshed. Through expert analyses, he claims that it would have been almost impossible for Sandra to throw off her husband from the attic balcony and not fall down herself, considering their body structures and weights. When the prosecution is unable to find any certain evidence against the wife, they focus on the possible motive and obviously try to dig up any disagreements between the couple.
It is indeed found that Sandra and Samuel had their share of disagreements and fights, although the true extent of them has not yet been revealed. The account of young Daniel becomes crucial here, but his inability to see also presents a dilemma in this context. The boy admits that he had overheard his parents talking to each other while he was about to leave the house, but he also states that it was not a quarrel but just a normal discussion. When asked about his exact spot, Daniel claimed to be under the attic window by the shed, explaining that he knew of exact spots by touching different textured tapes stuck on places. However, during the reconstruction of the scene, Daniel corrects himself, saying that he had mistaken his position when he heard his parents, as he was actually inside the house, by the doorway. The prosecution seemingly feels that the boy could be mistaken in his claims of his parents having a normal conversation, as he had already misremembered things. Furthermore, the fact that he heard their voices over the loud music makes it all the more possible that he misjudged the tone of the conversation.
What does the audio recording reveal about the couple?
A major breakthrough is made by the prosecution team when an audio recording of the couple’s altercation from only a day before Samuel’s death is found. It was indeed during this fight that Sandra had gotten the bruise on her arm. This tape reveals a lot about the couple, laying everything bare in front of the world to see and judge the only remaining partner, Sandra. In this manner, Anatomy of a Fall becomes not just about the fatal fall of a man from his three-story attic but also a closer look and dissection of a fall in the couple’s marriage. Sandra, a German woman living in England, met the French Samuel in London, where they fell in love and decided to get married. Both were writers and occasional teachers by profession, and both had the desire to achieve accomplishments in life. Despite the success that came their way, Sandra and Samuel only kept growing apart from each other, even though they never fell out of love. A major event that shook the foundations of the relationship further was the accident with Daniel, which caused him to lose his eyesight almost entirely.
When Daniel was a child, his babysitter had been sent to fetch him from school after Samuel forgot to reach the school in time because of his engrossment with work. The tragic accident took place at this very time, and Samuel kept blaming himself for his son’s loss of vision, as it could have been avoided if he remembered to reach the school in time. This was perhaps the first major point of break for the couple, as the two disagreed the most with regard to this incident. Sandra claims to have tried to help her husband get over the misery and guilt, but Samuel was apparently too rigid in his beliefs, and he felt that his wife always held him responsible for it. The audio tape found of the couple’s fight evidences how they spoke of Daniel’s accident, suggesting that the two were still bitter and extremely affected by it.
Although the couple eventually feigned normality after the accident, it left a grave mark on their bond, as signified by the lack of sexual proximity between them any longer. This further resulted in Sandra getting intimate with a woman twice and cheating on her husband. When this and the accident are mentioned in the recording, the prosecution tries to prove her as an unfaithful woman who wanted to get rid of her husband by any means, suggesting that her belief that Samuel was the one responsible for the accident was a solid motive. It is claimed by the prosecution, and it is also definitely felt, to some degree, that during their interview with Zoe, Sandra was being flirtatious with the student as well, suggesting that they met privately in Grenoble.
A further point of disagreement between the couple, as mentioned in the audio recording, is picked up by the prosecution as proof of motive. After their son’s accident, Samuel lost the ability to write and entered a very difficult mental state, unable to express his ideas in any way. In fact, his decision to record some everyday moments was only so that he could get back to his writing habit at present. During this time, Sandra asked if she could use one of his plot ideas in her work, and she did so after her husband’s approval. However, in the later years, Samuel claimed that his wife had completely ripped off his idea and had based an entire novel on it, leading to bitterness about each other’s professional capabilities as well.
Sounds of physical altercations are also heard in the recording, which Sandra explains to be just one slap by her on her husband, following which Samuel kept hitting himself out of frustration and anger. According to her, the man had a habit of self-harm whenever he was agitated, and this is proved by the multiple punch holes in the chalet’s walls as well. But the prosecution obviously states otherwise and tries to present the instance of physical assault as evidence of Sandra’s violent nature, which, according to them, made her commit the murder.
Is Sandra Voyter really guilty of killing her husband?
Sandra’s defense against the charges was based on one major claim—that Samuel had tried to take his own life some six months ago. She had stated how she had found him lying in a pool of vomit one morning, and some of the remains in the vomit looked like aspirin tablets. But there was no proof of this incident, and neither were there any witnesses, for Samuel had never spoken about this to anyone. Even the man’s clinical psychologist, who had regular sessions with him, refutes this claim. It seemed almost certain that Sandra would be found guilty of the crime, but things changed when the son testified in court.
Daniel knew that he would have to speak in court, and after hearing his mother’s claims about Samuel’s aspirin-mixed vomit, he carried out a harsh experiment of his own. According to the boy, all of which he reveals during his testimony at the end of Anatomy of a Fall, the dog Snoopy had fallen sick around the same time when Samuel had apparently tried to kill himself. Daniel remembers Snoopy smelling of vomit one morning, and then the dog acted very strangely for a few days. His guess is that the dog had consumed some of his father’s aspirin vomit and had itself fallen sick because of the tablets. Thus, Daniel gives Snoopy a number of pills and then notices that they react in the same manner as before. In this manner, the boy provides some sort of proof of his father’s suicide attempt. However, what Daniel reveals next is the final turning point in the whole case.
The boy says that during this time, his father had taken Snoopy to the vet, and he had accompanied them. During the car ride, Samuel apparently told Daniel about how he must not always rely on the companion dog, for it was getting old and sick and might die someday soon. The man essentially told his son about the possibility that all his supporters and helpers might go away sometime in the near future, so Daniel should be prepared to take care of himself. The young boy connects the scenarios and states with conviction that Samuel must have meant himself when mentioning Snoopy, for the man really had intentions of committing suicide.
Anatomy of a Fall‘s ending, or rather its entire plot, keeps the question of whether Sandra murdered her husband totally unanswered. The ambiguity maintained till the end is the very reason for this film to stick out, and there are reasons to believe both possibilities. It could be that Daniel told the truth about his interactions with his father, and while he did not understand what Samuel meant at the time, he could now make meaning of the words. It had been mentioned that Samuel spent the most time with Daniel, between the two parents, and he was the one who guarded his son at all times. But Samuel was also frustrated and severely depressed with his life, which was really going nowhere, and the failing relationship with Sandra hurt him some more. It is possible that on the day of his death, Samuel got jealous that his wife was spending time with a younger, attractive woman, and this got him agitated, which ultimately led to him jumping from the attic window.
On the other side, it is also very much possible that Daniel made up this entire story about his father admitting his plans of suicide and that the boy had carefully made this up to protect his mother. After all, the son definitely wants the company of his parents, and now that one has passed, he will do everything in his power to help the other. The very memory of such a young boy can also be questioned, for there were moments when Daniel misremembered things. It was perhaps indeed Sandra who had pushed her husband to his death after hitting him with some blunt, heavy object, and this was her way to satiate her anger against him. If we are to really believe this possibility, then the manner in which the scene with Samuel and Daniel inside the car plays out can come in handy. When the audio recording was heard in court, we were given visuals from the fight, and the two characters uttered the words in their own voices, suggesting that these words and statements were objective truths. But when we see Daniel and his father inside the car, as the boy makes his claims to the court, Samuel’s lips move, but the voice heard is that of Daniel. It is almost as if the boy places words of his choice in his father’s mouth through this subjective memory. But this cannot be solid proof of the boy lying in court either, as it can simply be a visual representation of the difference between a recorded conversation and one from memory.
Either way, Anatomy of a Fall chooses to be ambiguous till the very end, but the court has to make a decision, and it rules in favor of Sandra. The woman is acquitted of all charges, and Samuel’s death is either declared a suicide or an accident. Sandra finally gets to return home after celebrating with her dear friend Vincent, and Anatomy of a Fall ends with her reuniting with Daniel.