Women often learn to get along in the world by smiling. It’s what you do to put someone else at ease, to let them know you’re not a threat. Whether it’s a subconscious habit or a choice, so many of us do it that it’s no wonder men often—infuriatingly—expect us to supply one on command. But there’s a type of woman who doesn’t move through the world this way. Her smile is so rare, reserved only for occasions of her choosing, that you can’t always tell what she’s thinking. She can be a little off-putting, unapproachable; you’re never fully sure what to make of her. And if she happens to be a murder suspect, her Sphinxlike reserve may make you more inclined to believe she’s guilty.
That’s the kind of woman Sandra Hüller plays in French director Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall; you could subtitle it The Ballad of the Unsmiling Woman. Hüller plays Sandra, a successful novelist and translator, German-born but living with her French husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), and their 10-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), in a woodsy house in the French Alps. Daniel, who is blind, is out walking with his dog when he discovers his father’s lifeless body in the snow, just a few yards from the family home, his head bloodied from a wound; it appears he's fallen from an upper-story window. Sandra was, or claims to have been, taking a nap when the accident—if it was indeed an accident—occurred.
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Earlier in the day, she’d been forced to truncate an interview with a graduate student, an encounter that had become mildly flirtatious as she’d sipped from a goblet of wine. Samuel, while doing some construction work on an upper floor, was blasting music so loudly Sandra couldn’t hear her interviewer’s questions. (His banger of choice is a steel-drum cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.,” and it’s played so often throughout Anatomy that it becomes the movie’s unofficial theme song, carrying with it both comedic and sinister undertones.) Was Samuel playing his noisy music with the express purpose of disrupting Sandra’s interview? Did he know she was semi-flirting with this graduate student downstairs? Those questions point to a bigger one: Did Samuel fall from the window, did he jump, or was he pushed? When the cause of death is ruled inconclusive, Sandra is put on trial.
Anatomy of a Fall—which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May—is both a murder mystery and a courtroom procedural, a muted, elegantly constructed thriller that gives nothing away easily; even at the end, you may not feel 100 percent certain you know what happened, but that seems to be by design. (The script was cowritten by Triet and Arthur Harari.) Triet slips between tense courtroom scenes and flashbacks of Sandra’s family life at home. We learn there were tensions within the household. Bits of this family’s history are scattered before us like breadcrumbs: Both parents harbored some guilt over the accident that had caused Daniel’s blindness at age four, though one parent seems to feel it more acutely. We learn that Sandra has had an affair, and that Samuel—also a writer, though a struggling one—had been trying to wean himself off antidepressants. Daniel, a smart, sensitive kid—with a loyal, adorable dog named Snoop, who, it should be noted, meets with no lasting harm in the story—is caught in the middle, as kids so often are. In court, some of the witnesses glare at Sandra with outright hostility. She shows so little emotion; she must have murdered her husband. Right?
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Triet’s approach to telling this story is decidedly tasteful; she layers one subtly intriguing detail atop another, like a muted accumulation of snowfall. It could all be a little too hushed and antiseptic—but Hüller’s performance gives the movie the vitality it needs. This is really less a whodunit than a character study of a woman who isn’t immediately knowable. Sandra shows flashes of warmth and vulnerability with her lawyer, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), who’s earnestly trying to help her. (He’s an old friend, and he confesses that he was once in love with her, which seems both believable and wholly surprising given the alternating current of “come closer” and “go away” that animates her.) But more people seem to be put off by Sandra, and sometimes we are too. She’s affectionate with her son, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Samuel’s death. But it’s clear that Daniel was closer to his father. We start to wonder: is she really what we’d commonly call a “good” mother? And if her husband committed suicide, might her coldness have been at least a small factor?
Hüller answers all those questions quietly, often nonverbally; her performance is a marvel. At one point Sandra explains, matter-of-factly, why she felt it was so important not to cling to any guilt over Daniel’s accident, and suddenly we feel we’ve been given a key to her way of thinking. Sandra doesn’t smile at the world freely; she doesn’t put on a happy face to open doors. But her intensity is by itself a kind of thoughtfulness, and her emotions run as deep as anyone’s—she just refuses to parade them on the surface. Hüller’s Sandra, with her focused gaze, her manner of answering a question directly instead of dancing around it, is the movie’s uncompromising heart. She smiles like she means it, and only when she means it. It's like a new language, stripped of complicated syntax and flowery adjectives, and it's our job to learn how to read it.
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