Updated: Nov 13
Criminal Barrister - and Reclaim The Frame Trustee - Stephanie Hayward reflects on Justine Triet’s courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A FALL
When Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) is found dead in the snow by his blind son, Daniel, (Milo Machado-Graner), his cause of death is a mystery: did he jump, fall, or was he pushed? Post-mortem results prove inconclusive and his writer wife, Sandra Voyter, (Sandra Hüller) is suspected of murder.
“Stop. I did not do it”, she tells Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), long-time friend and now lawyer. Regardless, Renzi replies “…that’s not the point”.
Indeed, director Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall feels less concerned with whether Sandra actually kills Samuel and more with challenging assumptions that shroud a successful writer, wife, and mother accused of her husband’s murder.
The trial takes place in Grenoble in an old-fashioned courtroom. Sandra is suspected of castrating her husband’s creativity. Her literary success is weaponised - as if murder was conceived by her books. A violent, marital row (recorded covertly by Samuel) is interpreted as evidence of events that precede his death. Not insignificantly, all these theories are advanced by men. That they are too reductive to capture the truth, Sandra tells the court “…what you say…is just a little part of the whole situation…sometimes a couple is kind of a chaos, and everybody is lost”.
As a criminal barrister, I found the ‘cross-questioning’ of Sandra while other witnesses stood in the box, striking. In England and Wales trials follow a more linear process with clearer delineation between the prosecution and defence cases. In Anatomy of a Fall witnesses opine on the evidence and advocates comment on - even mock, live testimony. Perhaps it’s artistic licence to drive the plot, but here, as a general rule, only experts can give opinions; non-experts stick to the facts (what they see and hear); and comments are saved for speeches.
The inquisitorial system means the President of the court (a judge) assumes a more active role, directing proceedings*, calling witnesses, and asking questions. This includes 11-year-old Daniel. Surprisingly, there are few, if any, practical adjustments to accommodate his age. Daniel is asked complex questions and is recalled to give further evidence later in the trial. There’s a suggestion that his evidence most reliably informs how Samuel dies, not least because - as the child of the deceased and accused - his loyalty is conflicted. Torn between grief for his father, and believing his mother, Machado-Graner’s performance is mature, deeply thoughtful, lost and innocent.
Ambiguity surrounding the cause of Samuel’s death sees Triet make her strongest point. In an interview with Triet in the New Yorker published on 15 October 2023, the question is asked “can a woman be honest about her marriage – and her ambition – without being punished”. It should not need confirming that the answer to that question is ‘yes’.
ANATOMY OF A FALL is in UK cinemas from 10 November
*French Legal System, Second Edition. Elliot, C; Jeanpierre, E; Vernon, C. Pearson Education Limited, 2006, page 219.
Stephanie Hayward (she/her) is a Trustee of Reclaim The Frame and a criminal barrister. Stephanie leads ‘Behind the Gown’ - an organisation founded in 2017 by a group of barristers committed to tackling harassment and abuse of power at the Bar. Her film ‘Retaining Women at the Bar’, created to mark 100 years of women at the Bar, was released in 2019.