Today’s dispatch may turn into a Sandra Hüller tribute, but I suspect few people would complain. The German actress, who broke out big time with Toni Erdmann, stunned in the early Palme d’Or favorite The Zone of Interest two days ago. And now, she’s wowed again for her starring role in French director Justine Triet’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall. Premiering in competition, the 150-min film is a spectacle of words and performances that purports to be about a mysterious death, only to reveal itself as a reflection on the power dynamics and the very idea of truth within a relationship.
Hüller plays Sandra, a successful German author living in the French Alps with her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). When Samuel’s body is found splayed in front of their chalet one day, Sandra becomes the prime suspect and the boy – who is blind – may be the only witness whose testimony could convict his mother.
The bulk of the film unfolds like a standard procedural. The prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz) is eager to paint Sandra as an overbearing, unfaithful, ethically compromised wife who drove her husband to despair and killed him in a fit of passion. With the help of her attorney (Swann Arlaud), Sandra tries to defend herself and serves up a very different version of Samuel, someone so crushed by disappointments as to end their own life. The original screenplay by Triet and Arthur Harari recognizes the potential for drama in a murder trial, especially one concerning a married couple, and provides all participants with weapons that hurt. The verbal exchanges are brutal, maximizing details of a life together to place blame or plant doubt. Like what Baumbach did on Marriage Story, the two writers did smart, perceptive work here, mapping out a volatile relationship from dueling perspectives. Their decision to switch the focus to the son in the third act is brilliant. Until then a passive figure who insists on attending the hearings and learning things about his parents he hadn’t known before, Daniel eventually decides to conduct an experiment and the result will determine the outcome of the trial.
While Triet’s direction is, for the most part, formally reserved and not drawing attention to itself, the excellent screenplay and a cast of fantastic actors keep the fireworks coming. French cinema has a long tradition of talky films where it’s all about watching actors bring a sea of text to life. Playing opposing counsel in court, Reinartz (great in 120 BPM) and Arlaud (fabulous in I Want to Talk About Duras) are both so comfortable around the pages and pages of monologues handed to them and so compelling in their line delivery, it’s a pleasure just to watch them speak. Graner doesn’t have much to do until the last hour but hit his emotional scenes out of the park. The mixture of fear, doubt, shame that bubbles in his eyes as he explains his experiment is devastating.
And then there’s Sandra Hüller. How is it that she seems just as effortlessly believable in the skin of a Nazi homemaker as that of a celebrity novelist? Despite the added challenge of acting in two non-native languages (English & French) here, her performance never feels less than truthful, communicating the essence of her character even as she (purposefully) struggles with language. In a scene where she’s riding in the passenger seat, hit hard by everything she’s learned during the trial and the possibility of being testified against by her own child, she weeps ‘til she laughs, before the tears start streaming down her face again. Silently expressive and violently affecting, it’s the work of a master.
We’ve now arrived at the halfway mark of the festival. I’ve seen 18 features (plus the Almodóvar short), including the 11 (out of 21) competition films that have screened so far. Judging by its first half, this year’s selection is very strong. There’s one film that I think would be a Palme d’Or winner for the history books (The Zone of Interest) plus two films which would be more-than-solid picks (About Dry Grasses & Monster). As one can tell, I’m also a fan of Anatomy of a Fall. And I think both May December, Banel & Adama, Youth (Spring) are all pretty special too. With films by Aki Kaurismäki, Marco Bellocchio, Wes Anderson, Nanni Moretti, Wim Wenders, Alice Rohrwacher, Ken Loach and others still to come, the competition is shaping up to be the most intense in years.