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A dead, bloody body in the snow in Anatomy of a Fall, as someone near talks on the phone Image: Neon

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How Anatomy of a Fall drove a debatable mystery all the way to the Oscars

The French drama has stirred up more conversation than most of 2023’s ‘big’ movies

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Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

These days, a “water cooler” conversation can flare up and burn out in days. It’s rare to see any movie or TV show still spark any kind of unifying online discussion more than a week after its debut on a new platform, or after the final episode airs. For every Barbie or Oppenheimer or Barbenheimer, where critics, fans, reactors, streamers, podcasters, and others keep talking about the project for months after its debut, there are dozens of Netflix shows where the conversation stops after release weekend, or would-be blockbusters that make some money at the box office, but that viewers seem to have forgotten before the final credit rolls.

One of the more surprising recent movies to beat the too-much-competition-for-attention curse (or is it the short-attention-span curse?) was Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, a two-and-a-half-hour French drama about the fallout of a troubled relationship that ends with a literal fall. Anatomy of a Fall wasn’t a Barbie-sized box office blowout, or the kind of short-term cultural fad that sparks Saturday Night Live sketches or endless online memes. After its French debut in August 2023, it opened in just five theaters in America, and at its largest nationwide expansion, it was still in fewer than 600 theaters. Oscar season may change that, but up until now, Triet’s latest has been firmly on the arthouse circuit.

And yet Anatomy of a Fall wound up lingering in those theaters for more than three months, as word of mouth spread and a steady trickle of people saw it and recommended it to their friends, followers, or audiences. It was endlessly discussed and picked apart, with different theories about the movie’s central mysteries. And it wound up on hundreds of critics’ top 10 lists for 2023 and won dozens of minor industry awards, along with the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it first premiered.

Why has the film lingered so long and had such an impact in an environment where filmgoers keep complaining about longer movies and the focus of cultural conversation normally shifts rapidly away from any release shortly after its debut? There are a few reasons, all of which together add up to a potent conversation.

The movie’s biggest secret selling point is the endless questions it leaves behind. (“Secret” in the sense that this aspect of the movie would be hard to advertise in a way that sounds appealing instead of frustrating.) The movie is designed around mysteries that are never really solved, but are layered to give viewers plenty of ammunition for any argument they want to make. More significantly, the film supports a level of nuance and meaning to those arguments that goes beyond basic “Whodunit”-level discussions, and into much bigger questions about what writer-director Triet and her screenwriting partner (and real-world partner) Arthur Harari are ultimately saying.

Author Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller, with her short hair slicked back, wearing a dark blue shirt) stands uncomfortably in a courtroom in Anatomy of a Fall Image: Neon/Everett Collection

Sandra Hüller stars as the film’s central figure, Sandra Voyter, a famous German novelist on a lengthy creative retreat with her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their blind 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) in a remote chalet in the French Alps. Early in the film, Samuel falls out of a third-story window of the chalet and dies. While the film is billed as a thriller (and got plenty of press suggesting it was a Hitchcock-inspired murder mystery), it doesn’t operate at a thriller’s pacing or with a thriller’s tension: Triet builds the narrative slowly, letting viewers learn more and more about Sandra and Samuel’s relationship via other people’s reporting on it — particularly when she’s accused of his murder, and ends up in French court, defending herself.

Did she kill him? While an outsider might look at the facts of the case and believe she had ample motive for murder, how does she really feel about her relationship with Samuel? More importantly, does her son Daniel truly believe her version of the story? And how do his choices in the film reflect what he believes? These aren’t simple questions in Anatomy of a Fall, and Triet gives viewers plenty of potentially contradictory answers in each case, as well as plenty of ways to inject their own experiences, biases, and feelings into the process of finding the answers.

Triet has said that part of the motive for the movie was looking at the way courts can be more interested in creating narratives than revealing truths. When Sandra is on trial, much of the courtroom action revolves around different characters spinning up elaborate, detailed stories about how they think her marriage worked, and what particular moments or choices meant to her. Her own explanations for these same moments or choices are dismissed as self-serving or deceptive — and she certainly doesn’t help her case when she does lie about certain things.

Most centrally, an oily, notably misogynistic prosecutor (or, in French terms, advocate general), played to bristling perfection by Antoine Reinartz, makes a sumptuous public meal out of a recording of Sandra and Samuel fighting — a recording that has its own prominent ambiguities. That prosecutor is openly the villain of the piece, but when he catches Sandra out about places where she deliberately shaded or hid the truth, he scores some victories on the audience’s behalf, uncovering things they want to know in order to understand Sandra better, and to unravel her complex situation.

One of the reasons Anatomy of a Fall has proved so discussable, so indelible, is that it isn’t really about discovering whether Sandra pushed Samuel out of that window. It’s more about considering how impossible it is for any outsider to understand what goes on in any close, private relationship, whether it’s a marriage, or the link between parent and child, between siblings, or between anyone else who’s had time and space to develop an intimate connection that shuts other people out. Relationships tend to have their own language, literally as well as figuratively, and Triet illustrates how the neat, pat narratives we all understand — like “He was abusive, so she killed him,” or “She stole his creative ideas, so he shut her out” — are rarely nuanced enough to apply to real relationships.

That’s a heady concept for a courtroom drama or a relationship thriller, both of which tend to have their own pat narrative expectations. Which is another reason Anatomy of a Fall has spawned so much cultural conversation: It’s an unusual, ambitious, complicated project, which tends to keep a movie from becoming a populist hit, but often guarantees a film traction specifically with the kind of audiences who like to think about and discuss movies, from critics and awards bodies to fans of well-made arthouse cinema.

Eleven-year-old Daniel (Milo Machado Graner, seen in close-up in a bowl-cut and dark shirt) weeps in the movie Anatomy of a Fall Image: Neon/Everett Collection

Then there are the central performances. Hüller was also a critical favorite in year-end awards for her portrayal of Sandra, a complicated woman who’s sympathetic more often than repellent, but is enough of both to keep viewers guessing and debating. Hüller’s bafflement at how the court and the public see her relationship, and her naked hunger for Daniel’s trust and support, are both palpable drivers throughout the movie. It’s easy to feel for her when Daniel pushes her away, or when the prosecutor comes at her with yet another malicious, contemptuous barb. But it’s also easy to feel small seeds of doubt uncoiling in your stomach when the court reveals places where she twisted the truth, or when listening to how other people in the movie see or interpret her.

Graner, for his part, offers a compelling, convincing performance as a self-possessed, independent child burdened with more information and responsibility than he wants. The nuance and mystery Triet wants to dominate the movie wouldn’t work without these two performances and their interplay. Her script is richly detailed and complicated and her direction is confident and compelling, but so much of Anatomy of a Fall builds on Hüller and Graner’s interplay, and how viewers’ sympathies are meant to shift with each new revelation and all the new questions those revelations suggest.

But above all, a clear reason Anatomy of a Fall has provoked so many analytical essays and videos is because it’s such a satisfying topic. Like the top at the end of Inception, like the plane at the end of John Sayles’ Limbo, like the shoe and the other big questions of Jordan Peele’s Nope, the question of Sandra’s guilt is meant as a kind of Rorschach blot. Viewers may see more of themselves reflected in the movie’s central questions than they like — or they might just see it as a logic puzzle, where each new piece of evidence for a given take on the story might be the one that finally convinces everyone.

Triet and Harari don’t tip their hands, and don’t offer easy answers. This isn’t a mystery story about an all-knowing sleuth who sees through everyone, it’s a story about how unknowable people really are, and how hard other people work to convince themselves otherwise. The film tells a compelling story particularly well: If it didn’t, all that ambiguity might just be frustrating. But it’s also beautifully crafted as a conversation piece, and the kinds of viewers who enjoy debating movies keep finding it and keeping that conversation going.

For all the buzz around Anatomy of a Fall, and for all its lengthy theatrical run, it was still a small movie at the box office, earning a reported $23 million worldwide. But for an arthouse drama, that’s still a notable take, above some of the year’s other most buzzed-about theatrical dramas. And its digital availability — rentable on Amazon and Vudu, among the usual online retailers — will guarantee that people will keep finding it and talking about it. Maybe it’ll win an Oscar, maybe it won’t. But it’s already won its battle for recognition and attention in a crowded and competitive space. Maybe more than any other movie in 2023, it impressed the people who saw it, and kept them talking long after other movies of its vintage had peaked, passed, and been forgotten.