Written by Edward O’Claire27/04/24  
Anatomy of a Fall is one of the most remarkable films to have leapt onto screens in recent memory. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on under the surface but if you only cared whether I liked it or not then you can turn off your TV set now. Whilst award plaudits are not gospel, it’s not hard to see why the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. The film masterfully blends intense courtroom battles, heart wrenching personal stories whilst juggling an unanswerable question that’s omnipotence is, at times, overwhelming.

Sandra Voyter has agreed to an interview with a student writing a dissertation on her books. Part way through the interview a song plays at deafening volume. An instrumental version of PIMP, by 50 Cent, and on repeat too. As I write this, I too have placed it on repeat and at unbearable volume. Its impression on the film is impossible to escape and the strength of its groove ensures that the trauma the film inflicts is soon intrinsically linked to it. It is currently drilling itself deep into my own psychology so much that even the harsh crackle of static would be a relief. The song was put on by
Sandra’s husband, Samuel. Sandra and Samuel’s son, Daniel, needs to escape the noise and so elects to walk the dog. The interviewer leaves, and we follow Daniel through his walk up to his return. Samuel has fallen from the attic window, or maybe the balcony, of the chalet and lies most definitely dead.

Did Samuel fall, did he jump, or did Sandra kill him?

In its questioning of events, the film is relentless. Sandra is charged with Samuel’s murder and the courtroom aspect of the drama is cemented. As Sandra and Daniel live together, a court monitor, Marge, is assigned to them for the trial’s duration to safeguard against the risk of Marge saying anything to influence Daniel’s evidence. On Daniel and Marge’s first meeting she treats us to my favourite moment of the film.

Marge: You can consider me a friend. Or not. That’s your choice. [...]

Daniel: [...] I don’t need us to be friends.

Marge: Well, I’m here to protect your testimony. The law sent me, and... the law can’t be someone’s friend. Otherwise it couldn’t be someone else’s friend, and the law must be the same for everyone.

Marge is right: the law must be the same for everyone. Obviously. But is she right that the law can’t be someone’s friend? I think not. When the law is expressed through an individual, a judge (or Marge) for example, then a friendship is impossible as a liking of one person may end up with favouritism and God forbid judges become more like parents. Incomprehensible, sleep deprived and constantly pretending they don’t prefer the youngest.

But that’s not the only way the law interacts with people. The law can be someone’s friend when the law takes the form of an institution or general doctrine. When you make an effort to make the law your friend what you’re really doing is embracing its rules and using them to your advantage. To take an example, the laws laid down by HMRC are friend and foe to financial advisers at the same time. They embrace the fullness of the laws laid down and quietly do the bits their mate forgot to tell them not to. I do that with my friends all the time, they never tell me not to put an egg in their pint which means we’re still friends when I do. Which has become something of a hobby.

To a lawyer the law is like a Greek God, powerful beyond imagination and flawed to the nth degree; to form a love/hate relationship this powerful it could only be one of a close friend otherwise you wouldn’t put up with it. The law is Athena: knowledge abounding, petty, powerful, consistently and unfairly even.

Back to the film. I would be intrigued to hear how people who watched the film under the belief that Sandra killed her husband differed in their viewing experience to mine. The film expertly pitches itself such that Sandra can be a protagonist who we invest in without being told to root for. She is empathetic, intriguing, but no ‘hero’.

I decided to believe her. I chose to believe that Samuel had not been murdered. My belief did waiver, but I held firm. Had I chosen to believe the opposite, perhaps I would have found the persistent prosecutor less irksome than I did.

The film very clearly wants the viewer to make a choice, as the person who we are most aligned with during the running is not Sandra, but Daniel. The young boy is about as much in the dark as we are, and we discover the body of his father alongside him. His belief is as unsteady as our own and once again, Marge is there to provide a nugget 
of wisdom.

Marge: When we lack an element to judge something, and the lack is unbearable, all we can do is decide. You see? To overcome doubt, sometimes we have to... decide to sway one way rather than the other. Since you need to believe one thing but have two choices, you must choose.

This is why the film works as a courtroom drama in quite such an exquisite way. It is all too easy for the courtroom to become either a melodrama or a bore. Anatomy of a Fall manages to walk the tight rope between gripping and procedural whilst retaining the believable human story at the centre. We are not told, as an audience, what side to choose, but instead offered the opportunity to make a decision. That is what keeps us invested, as if we were the jurors ourselves, deciding the fate of the accused based on 
our beliefs.

One of the overriding messages of the film is that the law, and the criminal trial, has as tangential a relationship to truth as Jason Statham has to hair. Vincent, Sandra’s lawyer, puts this succinctly, saying that ‘You need to start seeing yourself the way others are going to perceive you. A trial is not about “The Truth,”’ it’s about belief. Vincent is saying that perception is everything and if people perceive innocence they are more likely to believe and defend innocence. They will look for signs of it in every corner of a person’s behaviour. On the other hand, if the jury perceive guilt they will make all the leaps they need to see that person as guilty. The key to our belief and perception of Sandra, the key to the jury’s belief, is what Daniel believes.

‘If I imagine my mother doing it, I don’t understand. But if I imagine my father... I think I can understand.’

Daniel was always the key and it’s his belief that is our emotional anchor to the film, and our connection with him never waivers. This line is what cements the jury’s verdict, the prosecutor feels obliged to point out that Daniel is not an authority on the facts. Daniel’s stories are ‘extremely subjective. In no way does it qualify as any form of proof.’

But who cares? That’s not what the law is about.

It’s in those closing moments of the film as well that the audience must choose what to believe. And I had chosen to rank this film as one of the finest I had ever seen.

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