New York Film Festival 2023: The Arrival of a Master — Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall”

By Erica Abeel

This is a Strindbergian dance to the death between a powerful, accomplished woman and a husband tormented by his own sense of failure.

Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall. Photo: MK2

With the arrival of the New York Film Festival it feels like the city’s cultural calendar has officially kicked into gear. This year’s stellar lineup of films from across the planet is especially heartening because it’s widely felt that — except for franchises of video games — cinema has entered crisis mode and is fighting for survival. (Even the franchises are failing to draw their audience of teen boys jonesing for one more explosion.) Meanwhile, where have the screens for art films gone? The Writer’s Guild strike against unfathomable corporate greed further hobbled cinema (if only temporarily) by halting production, along with the actors’ ability to promote their films.

But now along comes the NYFF to tell us that cinema is furiously flourishing, including, to some extent, in the U.S. Consider the presence in the lineup of films by (opener) Todd Haynes, Alexander Payne, Michael Mann, Sophia Coppola, and Bradley Cooper. Judging by the fest’s sold out screenings, audiences are hungering for what Martin Scorsese calls “serious” movies. They pack Alice Tully Hall partly because how else will they have the opportunity to see works by master filmmakers that may never find distribution here?

High among the standouts for me is Anatomy of a Fall (awarded this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes), the sophomore effort of French director Justine Triet, co-written with Arthur Harari. Fall unspools like a novel, offering ever deepening perspectives on the narrative’s characters. A whodunit and courtroom drama interwoven with the anatomy of a marriage, the film centers on a relationship between a successful wife and a professionally floundering husband that’s reached its endpoint.

I enjoy press screenings partly to hear the hot-off-the griddle verdicts of fellow- journos. One critic friend saw the film as an overarching view of a social tipping point, namely, the diminishing power of men and ascendance of women. I saw it as more particular, a Strindbergian dance to the death between a powerful, accomplished woman and a husband tormented by his own sense of failure. Fall’s richness and complexity honor a variety of responses.

Fall is set in the Alps near Grenoble, and moves between a chalet and its snowy surround, and a packed courtroom. That Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and Samuel (Samuel Theis) are both writers already spells trouble. They’ve moved from London to Samuel’s childhood region, presumably to free him up for writing and jump-start his creativity, a move, we later learn, Sandra resented. Daniel (Milo Machado Graner, remarkable), their precociously wise son, is vision impaired, the result of an accident that occurred on Samuel’s watch (a lapse Sandra has not forgotten).

In an opening scene Sandra is being interviewed by an attractive young woman. Is Sandra’s amiability perhaps tinged with flirtation? Her husband meanwhile is working to insulate the attic in hopes of opening an Airbnb. So, money problems. A sudden raucous blast of music from the attic — Samuel is playing on a loop 50 Cents’ P.I.M.P of all things — and the ongoing steel-drum din sabotages the interview.

Soon after, Daniel, who’s taken the dog for a walk, discovers Samuel lying dead in the snow beneath the attic window. In short order Sandra becomes a suspect. She insists on her innocence, but there are all those festering resentments. Courtroom drama is a tired affair, you might think, but in Fall the shifting evidence continually keeps you off balance, while the rapier wit of both prosecutor and defense brought loud laughter from the audience.

It’s hard for me to envision the film without the German actress Sandra Hüller – who in Fall communicates with her husband in English since her French is shaky, as if English were for the couple a kind of neutral Switzerland. Usually, in film, the eye wants beauty. Hüller’s strong, cheeky, unadorned features are more arresting than Hollywood-style glamorous and you can’t get enough of her.

I don’t believe I’ve ever met a female character like Sandra in movies. Hüller channels her as a woman who has forged a self that is not to be bullied by social convention. She refuses to “perform” innocence even when it might save her from prison. During her marriage she’s had the odd fling with women — partly, you sense, out of sexual need. Samuel was a charmer — at one time her soul-mate, Sandra says — but in flashbacks he comes across as a man furious over perceived inequities in household chores, etc. The real source of his anger lies in his inability to complete his book and its rejection by a publisher friend. Sandra is one cool customer — without being a boil-the-rabbit psycho — her steeliness suggesting that whatever else, she will do her work.

The centerpiece of the film arrives with the mother of all marital battles. It’s presented in court in a just-discovered tape that might have been made by Daniel. (Usually, he tells a shrink, “when they start yelling I leave.”) The rancor and rage that explodes on screen makes anything from Ingmar Bergman or Richard Linklater come off as a little hissy fit. The fact that we “witness” this carnage in a recording presented to the court — cleverly interspersed with visual flashbacks — in no way lessens its power.

Sandra’s most egregious crime, in Samuel’s view, is that she “pillaged” part of the work he was unable to finish, using it in her own book. Ever intent on feeding her creativity, Sandra sees no harm in that. What matters is to make literature. At one point, such are the perverted ways of writers, she imagines that Samuel may have instigated and recorded the fight to use in his own writing.

I won’t reveal the denouement, which keeps you guessing to the end. Don’t expect, though, the Big Reveal or a bizarro twist. Suffice it to say that Fall shies away from definitive conclusions, in the style of European movies. The idea of truth in this film is provisional, more an approximation of the truth, a notion which is beautifully articulated through dialogues between Daniel and his court appointed guardian. The film runs 2 and l/2 hours, though I did not find it long. I have to wonder, though, if American viewers will sit for something that is so culturally alien. Fall is the product of a country where literature matters deeply and writers are revered. Triet has pulled off an impressive feat: housing a marital implosion and literary matters within the frame of a whodunit — anchored by a new type of heroine. Fall marks the arrival of a master filmmaker.

Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her latest novel The Commune, a comic satire about second wave feminism, received a starred review in Kirkus.  Wild Girls, her novel about women rebels of the 50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, she enjoys Pilates classes and swimming in salt water.


  1. Daniel Gewertz on October 9, 2023 at 2:54 pm

    What a splendid review, a fine balance of analysis, scene-setting and vital information. And conversational, too! My favorite line was a simple, declarative one: “I don’t believe I’ve ever met a female character like Sandra in movies.” My one caveat is the remark that Bergman’s work, in comparison, comes across “like a hissy fit.” I assume the reference is largely about “Scenes From a Marriage,” of which I only know the lengthy screen version. I was so slaughtered by that film (when I saw it first-run at the erstwhile Exeter in the ’70s) I never wished to see it again. Comparing Bergman at his best with Linklater might be close to a cinematic sin.! (I assume the reference here is mainly for the overrated “Boyhood.’) Linklater is an essential, rewarding filmmaker, and both directors have displayed huge hit-or-miss factors, to be sure. These are but minor details. I mainly wanted to say I was so engaged reading the piece. The review is, overall, like a master-class.

    • erica Abeel on October 10, 2023 at 10:18 am

      Thanks, Daniel Gewertz I adore Linklater and, agreed, the comment you cite may be off the mark.

  2. Jacqueline Baird on October 10, 2023 at 11:00 am


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