The Cannes Film Festival is arguably the most prestigious in the entire world. Filmmakers, artists, and academics from all over the globe attend the annual competition, capped off with the Palme d’Or as the top honor. Some of the greatest films of all time have claimed the prize, as well as some controversial picks over the years. Two eventual Best Picture Oscar winners — Marty and Parasite — are also counted among the rarified ranks.
Still, if there’s one regular criticism about the award, and the festival at large, it’s a lack of accessibility. Cannes features entries from myriad countries, many of which are highly artistic and intellectual, and thus don’t always appeal to a mass audience. Last year’s winner, Triangle of Sadness, ended up scoring a few Oscar nominations, but no wins, and it was notably the only nominee for Best Picture to have not achieved “Certified Fresh” status on Rotten Tomatoes, its aggregate score standing at 72%. This is because while the movie was high-minded and had decent satire, it was also overlong and boring in parts, turning off critics and audiences who wish to be entertained rather than educated, and that’s perfectly valid.
Finding that connection to the general public is often difficult, but not impossible, as films like Barton Fink, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Pulp Fiction were more than capable of breaking into the mainstream. Sometimes the gap is bridged by a foreign film that takes the victory, and then rides a wave of success to the Oscar for Best International Feature.
I assumed that’s what was going to happen with this year’s winner, Anatomy of a Fall. A French production directed by Justine Triet (only the third woman to win the Palme d’Or), it could very easily be submitted by its home nation — one that already has an annual leg up on most of the competition — get tons of press, and ride the momentum to Oscar Night, putting itself at least temporarily in the zeitgeist. But then a curious thing happened. France didn’t submit it. It was one of the finalists on a shortlist considered by the French Academy committee, but they ultimately opted for The Taste of Things, which will hopefully see a domestic release sometime this winter.
That’s the sort of blow that could render Anatomy as a cultural footnote despite the fact that it’s in limited release right now and will go wider this coming weekend. So why didn’t France give itself what most would consider an early advantage in this year’s race? Having seen the film, I can think of two possibilities. One is that it might not even be eligible for the category, as International Feature mandates that at least 50% of the dialogue be in a language other than English. This is a French film, but part of the story is the characters using English as a “compromise” language, as lead Sandra (Sandra Hüller, who was fantastic in Toni Erdmann a few years ago) is German. I think most of the dialogue is French, but it’s damn close, and there’s a chance France didn’t want to risk having to withdraw.
The second is that the film, while well-made and superbly acted, isn’t all that great as a piece of entertainment. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but I got the distinct feeling while watching that I was viewing a lecture rather than a movie. There’s a lot to like in this project, but there are also some key narrative and presentation issues that make this come off more like a thought experiment than a genuine story, making it intriguing, but ultimately nothing all that special because the average movie-goer won’t have a reason to care.
The plot surrounds Sandra, a novelist living with her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and visually-impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) in a chalet near Grenoble, which Samuel, in addition to his teaching job and writing of his own, is remodeling to convert into a bed & breakfast. During an interview with a student (Camille Rutherford), Samuel begins playing loud music on repeat (a steel drum instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.”), annoying everyone else in the house. Daniel leaves for a walk with his seeing-eye dog, Snoop, and when he returns, he finds Samuel lying dead on the ground outside the house, bloodied from a blow to the head and having seemingly fallen from the upper floors.
Sandra appears quite distraught after seeing her husband’s corpse, but after initially lying to investigators, it becomes clear that she is suspected in his murder. She calls in her old friend, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), who also happens to be an attorney, in order to craft a defense. They eventually settle on airing secrets about the relationship in the court, positing that Samuel might have actually committed suicide.
Now there are some really interesting angles from which this issue is attacked, as Sandra’s trial is much more a postmortem analysis of her and Samuel’s marriage than anything else. In essence, it’s the only salient part of the entire court proceeding, as anyone with even a passing interest in the judicial system knows there’s no actual case against Sandra other than innuendo and character testimony. I’m by no means an expert on the nuance and intricacies of France’s criminal code, but what we’re presented hews fairly close to our own standard, where the prosecution must convince a jury (they sit atop a dais alongside the judge) of Sandra’s guilt. We don’t know the burden of proof, but it certainly unfolds on screen like any other legal drama we’d see here in the States. As such, with a lack of forensic evidence (the prosecution demonstrates a theory of how Sandra could have killed Samuel, but it’s countered by an equally valid theory from the defense about how he could have fallen on his own), the outcome of the trial is pretty much a given. Unless we’re going for an extreme sense of melodrama or themes about a miscarriage of justice in a corrupt system, Sandra’s fate is never really in doubt.
So, in the absence of a compelling case, the trial is just a framing device for the examination of the marriage, which again, is quite intriguing, mostly because of what we’re shown and what we aren’t. Almost all of the information comes from Sandra directly, with Hüller giving a tremendously understated performance. She details the ups and downs of their relationship, including her own infidelity, which lends her version of events a degree of credibility. But at the same time, she is by definition an unreliable narrator, as she lied in hopes of deflecting suspicion (the main examples being convenient excuses for a bruise on her wrist and the sudden memory of an incident where Samuel vomited up half-dissolved pills), and being that she’s the only suspect, she has a vested personal interest in swaying the verdict.
Still, there’s some great nuance here. There’s concern for what Daniel can or should know about his parents at such a young age. There’s an evolution of the story as the trial wears on, starting with Sandra being part of a happy and supportive marriage and eventually devolving into acrimony, to the point that as events unfold, you can kind of see her convincing herself that this is the truth, whether it’s real or not. There’s even a fun quasi-reference to Basic Instinct, as the prosecution attempts to use Sandra’s writing against her, noting how several of her books reflect aspects of her life, including her most recent, where an unhappy wife imagines murdering her husband.
On the other side of the equation, there’s a clear manipulation taking place here. As much information as we get from Sandra, we get almost nothing from Samuel. You can write that off as him being dead, but testimony includes flashbacks at several points, and with one exception, we never hear a single word from his mouth. That outlier is a dramatic piece of evidence in the form of a recorded argument between the two the day before Samuel’s death, and through it the film games the audience. There’s an ethical question about Samuel recording conversations without informing Sandra, but the presentation sets that aside in favor of the narrative. As the recording plays (with a French transcript projected on screens since the conversation is in English), we cut to a scene of the argument. There’s no establishment that this is how it played out, but it’s staged anyway for our benefit. And then, just when things are at their most heated, the flashback cuts back to the courtroom, where we only hear the final moments, including Sandra striking Samuel. If that’s not metaphorically leading the witness, I don’t know what is.
All of this is justified to a certain extent, because Triet wants some aspects to be explicit while others are left to interpretation. That’s all well and good, but where the film falls short for me is in the middle finger it gives the audience as to the purpose for all of this. Despite the fact that the French literally invented the denouement, their cinema (and a lot of other European art) feels almost allergic to the idea of resolution, and it angers me to no end. A degree of ambiguity is fine, but this picture goes out of its way to avoid saying anything concrete on the actual method of Samuel’s demise. When Sandra tells Vincent that she didn’t kill her husband, he shrugs it off and replies, “That doesn’t matter.” Most other films would just treat that as a dramatic bit of dialogue. Here it’s used as a mission statement.
The intrigue for a general audience is not in whether or not Sandra’s convicted, but in whether or not she’s guilty, and the film basically refuses to even engage with the idea. You might think this is a spoiler, but it’s not. The very first image we see of this movie — at least from this public release; I can’t say for sure if it was included in the Cannes screenings — is a slate advertising a website called didshedoit.com. Right then and there, you’ve given up the ghost. You’ve already told us that the trial is meaningless, and that you have no intention of actually telling us how Samuel died. So why should we bother?
That is some bush league shit. Hell, I did that crap back in college. Seriously, my first student film project was a short that I did with two classmates my sophomore year. I worked with the same people on three different assignments that semester, and when we couldn’t decide which of our script ideas to produce, the professor suggested that we use my writing with one other directing, and rotate responsibilities each time. It was a good compromise, because we all thought our ideas were great (they weren’t; we were kids) and this gave us the chance to dabble in many different disciplines to see what we were good at. It’s where I discovered my talents for writing and editing.
Anyway, the film I wrote was called Live in Stereo, and the premise was a mostly dialogue-free affair where two students meet for a blind date. One was fastidious and listened only to classical music, while the other was more casual and listened to rock and metal. They make their way to the designated rendezvous at an art gallery, with each one walking and acting in their trope-ish way while the soundtrack was almost entirely catalog cuts that fit their respective genres. When they arrive, they instantly bond over the same painting, and walk off together to the sounds of “Tonight, Tonight” by Smashing Pumpkins, still one of the best examples of orchestral rock in existence. When we screened it for the class, several of the other students liked it, particularly the music choices, but one person asked the operative question. “Is it Live like living or Live as in not pre-recorded?” I smirked and responded, “What do you think?” to which everyone playfully booed, and they were right to do so. I wasn’t being clever, I was being pretentious. This wasn’t a genuine invitation for reactions and opinions, it was a cop out because I couldn’t make up my own damn mind. I eventually settled on the “living” definition, but even 20-year-old film students could tell that I was being obtuse for no reason.
The same is true with Anatomy of a Fall, but on a much larger scale. By opening the flick with a marketing ploy to elicit comments and theories, you’re telling the entire audience that none of this is done in good faith. It’s clickbait on the silver screen. You have no intention of satisfying the story by actually concluding it. Instead you’re telling the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on whatever hoity-toity ideas you posit over the course of two hours of sluggish plot movement.
It’s even more frustrating in this particular case because of Daniel. Half blind from an accident at the age of four, he’s obviously devastated by the loss of his father, and he’s clearly traumatized by the rigmarole he has to go through via the legal system. As he wails into his pillow after Samuel’s death, the poor boy pleads with the universe that he just wants to understand why his dad is dead. The irony is not lost on the viewer that the one person who can barely see is the only one trying to be clear-eyed about the whole thing. And instead of getting the catharsis and resolution he desperately needs, he is told, quite literally, to decide for himself. I’m being serious. A court-appointed guardian (Jehnny Beth) actually tells him that in the absence of objective facts and evidence, he simply has to decide for himself whether or not his father was murdered or killed himself. That’s it. You want to understand? Fuck you, make up your own ending.
That is just an absolute load of crap, and it takes Daniel from being the most compelling character in the film (seriously, Machado-Graner’s performance is even better than Hüller’s, and that’s saying something) to a clumsy conduit for Triet to shift the story onus onto the audience, which is just wrong. I know it’s not exactly European, and there are certainly ways to fuck up the “did she or didn’t she” thread after the fact — just look at Where the Crawdads Sing if you don’t believe me — but to lead with that false pretense is to basically make this entire film an exercise in futility.
This is a real shame, because as I said, there’s a lot to recommend. Triet’s direction is sound, the cast is perfect, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the details of Sandra’s relationship with Samuel are stimulating on both an emotional and intellectual level, even if the presentation is intentionally biased. But this aversion — if not outright hostility — towards a clean ending does knock the film down a few points. Rather than finish the job, Triet et al told us it was up to us to decide the truth. I can understand that if you’re saying that we’re the ultimate jury in this case, but as mentioned, there is no actual case against Sandra, so we’re only getting one-sided conjecture before being asked to render a verdict, so it doesn’t work.
But if the filmmakers really want me to decide, fine, I will. Sandra probably didn’t kill Samuel, and even if she did, there was no factual case to prove her guilt or innocence one way or the other. I still wanted to know, and because I wasn’t shown or told, I like this film a lot less than I wanted to. For the high-minded jury at Cannes this year (including Ruben Östlund, Paul Dano, and Brie Larson), they decided this was a masterpiece worthy of the top prize. For France, they decided it still wasn’t good enough to represent them to the Academy, and until I see The Taste of Things, I’m going to agree with that assessment. This was good, really good in places, and it could’ve been great, but Triet decided it wouldn’t be.
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