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If you love courtroom dramas, this Oscar-nominated film is not to be missed

<em>Anatomy of a Fall</em> may feel familiar at first but it immerses audiences in a different kind of legal thriller. Above, Sandra Hüller plays a writer accused of murdering her husband.
Les Films Pelléas
Anatomy of a Fall may feel familiar at first but it immerses audiences in a different kind of legal thriller. Above, Sandra Hüller plays a writer accused of murdering her husband.

The Oscars love a courtroom drama, and part of the appeal of a traditional courtroom drama has always been the restoration of order. There is an open question, there is an investigation, there is a confrontation, and there is a climactic moment when something is revealed and settles the matter. Even where the system fails, the storytelling succeeds in getting to that resolution. The innocent may be convicted or the guilty set free, but the storyteller gets to the bottom of things, and in that sense, there is order again.

Plenty of Best Picture nominees have fallen into this category: Witness for the Prosecution, The Verdict, A Few Good Men. This year's courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Fall, looks at this question in a different way.

Beyond the fact that it's set in France and in the French justice system, the film is ultimately much less clear than these other examples about the answers to the central questions it seems to be asking. Because there is no huge revelation that makes everything snap into place, you could read it as a story of frustration or of stubbornly persistent chaos. But in its way, it, too, is about the disruption of order and its restoration. And that starts with the "P.I.M.P" cover.

Enter 50 Cent

At the beginning of the film from writer and director Justine Triet, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) is in her home on a snowy mountain, being interviewed about her writing by a young woman named Zoe. Their discussion is friendly, even flirty. Her kind-hearted son, Daniel, is upstairs bathing his dog. Suddenly, the women are interrupted by a steel drum cover of 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P." that rattles the walls. Sandra explains that her husband, Samuel, is working upstairs and listening to music, and they try to keep talking. The song finally stops, but then, after a transparently peevish pause, it just starts over, louder. The music continues until the interview cannot go on. Chaos has won. Sandra chuckles and admits defeat, and Zoe leaves. Daniel goes for a walk.

Soon after, Daniel finds Samuel dead on the ground outside the house. Somehow, he has fallen from a height, and his bright red blood on the snow is itself a discombobulating image. Now, chaos has really won.

The rest of the film is spurred by the investigation of how Samuel died. Despite a lack of direct evidence, Sandra is charged with killing him because she was the only person there. As a result, much of her trial is consumed by questions about her marriage. Was it bad enough that she threw her husband out the window, or pushed him off the balcony? Was it bad enough that he jumped? Did he, in fact, just fall?

The anatomy of a courtroom

Triet's version of a courtroom drama looks different — at least to an American audience familiar with, say, Law & Order — in part because the physical courtroom itself is much more multidimensional and more complex in its use of space.

In most American takes on this genre, you get a courtroom that is laid out in what we might think of as a church formation. The gallery, sitting on benches, faces the judge, who sits on their elevated platform. When a witness testifies, they sit beside the judge, facing the gallery, while they speak. The jury sits perpendicular to both judge and gallery, visually aligned with neither. The attorneys wait with the audience, watching, until it's time to "go on." It's quite flat, with communication running in two directions at most.

American audiences will find the layout of the French courtroom differs from what they are used to seeing in on-screen legal dramas.
/ Les Films Pelléas
Les Films Pelléas
American audiences will find the layout of the French courtroom differs from what they are used to seeing in on-screen legal dramas.

The layout in Anatomy of a Fall is very different. The courtroom has a square formation. Think of the bench as north and the gallery as south; these still face each other. The defense is arranged along the east side and the prosecution along the west. Jurors are up on the bench with the judges. The advocate general (basically the prosecutor) has an elevated box from which he can descend, and Sandra sits just behind and above her lawyers. When a witness testifies, they stand behind a waist-high barrier facing the judge and jurors, rather than sitting in a box by the judge.

The Anatomy courtroom can be disorienting at first; it's initially not easy to know where Sandra is exactly, or where she's looking. Sometimes you can't tell quite where the hard-nosed (and red-robed) advocate general comes from when he questions her. The process is surprisingly freewheeling — the attorneys freely argue back and forth with each other, and the advocate general asks Sandra questions during testimony from others.

Antoine Reinartz as advocate general in <em>Anatomy of a Fall.</em>
/ Les Films Pelléas
Les Films Pelléas
Antoine Reinartz as advocate general in Anatomy of a Fall.

The square formation and elevated seating allow for a wide variety of camera angles, and Triet doesn't offer an establishing shot at the outset to explain the space to the audience.

Instead, the very first time we see the courtroom, we have a bad seat in the gallery, back in a corner where our view is obstructed. Zoe, the woman who conducted the interview in the opening scene, is in the middle of her testimony, and the court is hearing the tape she made of her interview with Sandra. Specifically, the first time we find ourselves in the courtroom, everyone there is listening to the "P.I.M.P." cover. The shots keep switching their angles and techniques: a steady push in on Sandra, then a wider static shot of just the bench, then a medium shot of Zoe that begins to push in on her, too — but in a shot that's conspicuously handheld and much shakier. There are big parts of the courtroom at this point, the courtroom that will be the setting of much of the rest of the film, that we haven't even seen. It's very (intentionally) disorganized from a sensory perspective.

The son who settles the story

Eleven-year-old Daniel didn't witness his father's death yet his arrival brings clarity — if not order — to the courtroom.
/ Les Films Pelléas
Les Films Pelléas
Eleven-year-old Daniel didn't witness his father's death yet his arrival brings clarity — if not order — to the courtroom.

The first long look at the courtroom comes a bit later when 11-year-old Daniel arrives to testify. The scene begins with the camera seemingly nestled against a high ceiling, in the center rear of the room. It looks down, putting the whole courtroom in the frame at once. This shot is neutral, normal, explanatory. The camera holds here for fully 30 seconds, which is an eternity in movie time, and especially in courtroom drama time. The arrival of this very long, very wide shot is jarring, and it changes the tone. It calms the restless camera. It calms the jitters of not fully understanding the space we're looking at.

In this sense, Daniel's arrival starts to create order. A couple of minutes later, as he's being questioned about inconsistencies in his memory, he looks back and forth between the advocate general and Sandra's defense attorney, who are standing on both sides of him and arguing about his testimony. For almost a minute and a half, Triet stays with an unbroken shot of his face. The camera just swings from side to side as he looks from one of these men to the other and back, so that he is always facing the lens. Even when he looks over at his mother, we don't cut to her, as would be the traditional move. Instead, we remain with Daniel.

Two different kinds of order from chaos

So if we know that Daniel's arrival in the courtroom brings order to the form of the film, it makes sense that he's a source of order in the story. But how can that be? Even he doesn't actually know what happened to his father; he was out walking the dog. If order comes from getting the facts, it seems impossible that he can be the answer to the messiness of the drama playing out in front of him.

Furthermore, it's no spoiler to say that it's not at all clear that Daniel is telling all of the literal truth about what he saw and heard. He is protecting his mother. So again, it might seem unlikely that he can provide any answers.

I think the solution to this tension is simply that Anatomy of a Fall is about a different kind of order. It's not order that comes from certainty, but from clarity. Nobody here seems to have certainty about what happened — even Sandra might or might not, depending on what you believe about her. But what Daniel manages to achieve by the end of the film is clarity. He knows what he wants to do, he knows what he thinks is right to do, and he knows what he thinks should happen. And he can articulate all those things to people who are hesitant to listen to him. (There is, I suppose, some irony that might be inferred from the fact that Daniel is visually impaired, but I don't think Triet is going for anything quite so on-the-nose.)

Even when Daniel is not being fully truthful, he is the one entirely trustworthy person in the story. Whatever he is doing, he is doing out of love alone, while his parents both acted at times out of love, but also out of anger and jealousy, resentment and selfishness. Again, he has clarity — in this case, clarity of motive.

So while this might seem like an unconventional courtroom drama Oscar nominee, it shares that theme of a courtroom as a step on the way to restoring order, even if it's only the order of knowing what you think is right.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.