In Downtime's second TIFF dispatch, our humble correspondent reviews a Palme d'Or-winning legal thriller and a tearjerking family drama.
natomy of a Fall (Justine Triet)
Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or-winning Anatomy of a Fall begins, like many legal thrillers before it, with a dead body: Samuel (Samuel Theis) lies in the snow after falling from a high window in his remote French Alps chalet, and an inconclusive autopsy suggests that foul play might have been involved. Soon enough, his wife Sandra (Sandra Hüller)—a successful German novelist who famously mines her life for her work—has been charged with murder. She enlists the help of a lawyer friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud), who’s frank about her shaky chances at trial. A blood splatter analysis implies a violent act occurred. Her young, visually impaired son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), provided contradictory testimony about the day’s events. The prosecution has uncovered a damning audio recording of Sandra and Samuel fighting the day before his death. Yet, Sandra staunchly maintains her innocence.
Anatomy primarily chronicles Sandra’s trial, in which the prosecution—led by a snide, bullying attorney (Antoine Reinartz)—openly uses every aspect of the writer’s personal life as evidence against her, including her occasional infidelities and minor details from her novels. Triet effectively works from the courtroom drama playbook to examine the fundamental unknowability of people and how it intersects with storytelling and memory. While the contemporary predominance of true-crime stories might have rendered that theme potentially hacky, Triet breathes fresh life into it by restraining herself from indulging in outsize melodrama or unearned social commentary. Anatomy simply depicts a contemporary woman with a familiarly difficult home life brushing up against a fundamentally conservative legal system that has a vested interest in reducing her to a paradigm. Triet’s point is obvious: the truth is always muddier, more complicated, and, yes, more paradoxical than it seems because people are irreducible.
Triet and Arthur Harari’s script cleverly denies the audience access to any information about Sandra’s past ahead of their evocation at trial so that they’re forced to mentally reexamine preceding events. For example, Anatomy opens with Sandra being interviewed by a grad student (Camille Rutherford), which is passive-aggressively interrupted by Samuel blasting an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” on a loop. It’s not until trial that we learn about Sandra’s bisexuality and that Samuel might have been objecting to a potential flirtation between the two. Details like their chummy banter or Sandra’s glass of wine take on greater importance, even if they’re ultimately irrelevant. Similarly, Triet and Harari don’t foreground Daniel’s visual impairment, allowing viewers to discern it on their own long before the circumstances of his condition becomes an open topic in court. Information in Anatomy both clarifies and obscures: certain scenes become psychologically richer with greater context, but Triet ensures that their relevance or factual basis remains confused.
Anatomy’s tense courtroom scenes ostensibly weigh the value of the various pieces of evidence Triet and Harari introduce, but they also portray the French legal system as a misogynistic playground of conjecture and speculation with no semblance of impartiality. The Prosecutor goes to great lengths to paint Sandra as a castrating, philandering careerist who resented her husband for factual and imagined reasons. His open prejudice against Sandra’s queerness and her German heritage, i.e., her inability to speak fluent French, is embraced by the court and the media, who treat the trial like a serial drama. Triet never panders for audience sympathy with this representation; in fact, she implicitly argues that the Prosecutor’s tactics possibly do more harm than good. How can a jury determine her potentially violent motivations if the court tries to characterize her like a villain out of bad fiction?
With admirable self-possession, Triet understands the prosecution and the defense must fill the blanks in a murder case with no witnesses, but also illustrates how that demand inevitably leads to psychological projection. When the court finally plays the audio of Sandra and Samuel’s fight, Triet provides a visual accompaniment, the first and only time the film deviates from the present tense. We witness exonerating body language and culpable facial expressions during the scene, and Triet blocks the actors in such a way that the potential for violence always feels both imminent and unlikely. She immediately returns to the courtroom the moment the audio indicates breaking glass and exchanged blows, denying viewers any objective truth about what actually occurred when the argument turned physical. Sandra believably builds out the gaps in the scene during her testimony, but Anatomy ensures that we can never be fully sure about the veracity of her words.
Triet’s distanced direction and process-focused script affords Hüller a platform to exhibit tremendous poise as well as barely-concealed terror and grief. It’s just as thrilling to watch her honestly articulate Sandra’s conflicted feelings during her numerous cross-examination scenes as it is to watch her silently absorb various attacks against her. Hüller retains just enough mystery in her performance to keep some of Sandra’s motives in the dark: it’s unclear if she flirts with Vincent to secure his expert counsel or because she’s genuinely attracted to him, just like it’s uncertain whether she consciously attempts to manipulate Daniel’s testimony or it’s merely the product of compassionate parenting.
For my money, Triet does stake a position on Sandra’s innocence, but allows just enough doubt to pervade the film so that her word can’t be taken as sacrosanct. She filters lingering suspicions through Machado-Graner’s astounding performance, a murky mixture of adolescent grief and keen awareness. Daniel’s coming-of-age plays in the background of Anatomy as he falls headfirst into an adult world of secrets and lies that requires him to rapidly develop his own perspective on a matter far too complicated for his age. He plays a key role in Sandra’s trial, but the effect of watching his parents (one alive, the other dead) be placed under the microscope for an extended period of time lives in his resigned face. Nobody know anybody, but everyone makes a decision to accept the knowledge afforded to you.
Anatomy of a Fall will enter limited release starting October 13.
His Three Daughters (Azazel Jacobs)
The actresses who play the three eponymous daughters in Azazel Jacobs’ latest drama each give radically different kinds of performances befitting their characters’ dissimilar personalities. As Katie, the eldest daughter, Carrie Coon speaks in a speedy, clipped tone that conveys perpetual control-freak irritation; her scowling face and stiff body language conveys the harried impatience of an overtasked Brooklyn mother. Natasha Lyonne plays Rachel, the perma-stoned middle child, who embodies the delivery and physicality of, well, Natasha Lyonne, as well as someone too detached from shock to care about Katie’s Type A condescension. Finally, the woo-woo Deadhead youngest daughter, Christina, might seem like a New Age space case, but Elizabeth Olson imbues the character with a centered sanguinity that gives her crucial perspective that her sisters lack. She’s the only one of the three who speaks in a calm, measured tone.
Jacobs immediately establishes the theatrical bent of His Three Daughters by introducing the sisters in separate one shots where they deliver monologues of varying lengths. The film mostly takes place in a cozy, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment on which the sisters have descended to care for their father during his final days in hospice. Katie could not be less interested in being in Rachel’s company: she instantly makes demands on her sister, like insisting she smoke her blunts outside the apartment, and cracks snide comments about her irresponsible slacker lifestyle. Christina maintains her sanity by spending the most time with their father, likely because she lives across the country, and tries to keep the peace between Katie and Rachel. Any connections the three once shared have long since frayed, but now that the specter of mortality has taken residence in their father’s home, it’s only natural underlying tensions bubble to the surface.
His Three Daughters follows a familiar trajectory: estranged family members gather to mourn an imminent loss, they fight over old wounds, and then they reconcile. But through his intimate-bordering-on-claustrophobic direction and his detail-oriented script, Jacobs lends casual, urban-inflected realism to what would otherwise be a standard tearjerker. The apartment’s inherently tight quarters keeps anxiety high: resentments between the three imperceptibly mount whenever Rachel crosses the kitchen, which Katie and Christina frequently inhabit, to decamp to her room to watch sports. Katie’s obsession with acquiring a Do Not Resuscitate order for her father arguably takes up more space than she does. It’s credible that the frequent appearances of the hospice caregiver, Angel (Rudy Galvan), would eventually aggravate the sisters, who sour on his compassionate advice. The focus on cooking, the casual problem drinking, and the frequent phone calls to family all have a familiar, believable touch.
Of course, His Three Daughters is primarily an actor’s showcase, and each performer adeptly exemplifies their character’s best and worst traits in just about every scene. While Lyonne mostly defaults to her sensitive, hard-edged persona—the exterior scenes when she engages with her fellow New Yorkers feel like Jacobs allowed her to freely improvise—but she also nails the passive quiet and frustration of the forgotten middle kid. Coon arguably gives the least surprising performance of the three: her theatrical background provides her plenty of training for her character’s prickly, severe disposition, and the moments when that façade cracks or her guard falls to reveal latent vulnerability brings out the best in her. Olson, however, gives the most unexpected turn as someone who came by her hippie attitude organically because of parental and sibling neglect. Olson filters a deep-seated sense of peace into Christina, whose worldview all but rejects any possibility of bitterness, which keeps her at a distance from her angrier older sisters, but also renders her the most mature by default. At one point, Olson gives a lovely, grounded speech about the Grateful Dead that sadly suggests the family she met at shows were more supportive and loving than the people who raised her.
His Three Daughters risks a certain mannered insularity considering its stagey infrastructure, but Jacobs goes to some lengths to emphasize that the film’s confined nature is rooted in both choice and circumstance. (The girls can’t go outside in case something happens to their father, but they also oddly feel safe within the toxic environment as well.) The trio infuses authenticity into even the script’s weepiest, most melodramatic moments so that the writing rarely feels mechanical or consciously dramatic, and Jacobs breaks up the uniformity of the performances by ceding the frame to various other performers. Jovan Adepo plays Rachel’s casual boyfriend and he briefly takes control of His Three Daughters when his character takes Katie to task for her contemptuous treatment of Rachel, their father’s primary pre-hospice caregiver, probing her guilt for not pitching in more despite living a borough away.
In his previous film, the underrated French Exit (2020)—an offbeat comedy about a broke Manhattan heiress and her adult son escaping to France to spend the remainder of their fortune—Jacobs indulged in a few whimsical flights of fantasy within its otherwise realistic, albeit affected framework. In His Three Daughters, he returns to this well in its final act with the abrupt appearance of the sisters’ dying father (played by Jay O. Sanders), whose physical absence initially hangs over the film like a pall, strongly implying that the man has already died even though he technically still breathes. Mileage will vary over whether Jacobs’ choice to puncture the film’s verisimilitude pays off or not, but it’s worth noting that His Three Daughters only indulges in fantastical wish fulfillment by underscoring its unreality. In the end, there’s still just a dead father and the family he leaves behind, who are only slightly closer than they were before, with no guarantees that they will maintain the bonds between them.
His Three Daughters has no official release date yet, but will almost definitely be coming to a theater (or, potentially, a streaming service) near you soon.