“My job is to cover the tracks, so fiction can destroy reality,” says novelist, Sandra Voyter, not directly, but in a quote attributed to her by the presenter of a TV literary program. The context is significant, because Sandra, played by German actress, Sandra Hüller, is on trial for the murder of her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis) – found dead in front of the family home, near Grenoble in the French Alps, having fallen from a third-floor window.
Did he jump or was he pushed? Is Sandra a murderer or an unjustly accused, grieving widow? As another TV presenter observes, “the idea of a writer killing her husband is far more compelling than a teacher killing himself.”
The idea proved compelling for the judges at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, who awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or to French director, Justine Triet, for Anatomy of a Fall. The fall happens within the first few minutes, but it will take two-and-a-half hours to reveal the anatomy. The movie is not a conventional ‘whodunnit’, but something closer to the reality TV series, The Staircase (2004), in which we veered constantly between conviction and scepticism.
In this case, matters are complicated by Sandra’s profession. The story begins with her being interviewed in her loungeroom by a student (Camille Rutherford), while Samuel is working upstairs. The first thing we learn is that her books “mix truth and fiction”, the second is that she is more interested in asking questions than answering them. When a blast of loud music descends from the top of the house – an instrumental version of Five Cent’s P.I.M.P., if you must know – the interview has to be curtailed.
While the music keeps blaring, the student leaves, Sandra retires upstairs, and eleven-year-old Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) takes the dog for a walk. The boy returns to find his father lying in a pool of blood on the snowy ground. He yells for his mother, an ambulance is called, and the mystery is underway.
Much of the following two hours will be spent in court, as Sandra’s lawyer, the willowy Vincent Frement (Swann Arlaud), jousts with a shaven-headed Avocat général (Antoine Reinartz). Sandra protests her innocence, but there are too many details that don’t add up. Her story about going to her room to work, then having a nap, is a poor piece of plotting for a distinguished novelist. How could you sleep with the music blaring? I was wearing ear plugs. Then how did you hear Daniel shouting for help? One of the plugs must have fallen out…
With such alibis it’s no wonder Sandra is indicted for murder, but these stories are only a taster for the many lies and puzzles of this marriage. We find Samuel also had aspirations to be a writer but could never get down to work, while his wife published one book after another. There were money worries. There was a rift over an accident that left Daniel partially blind when Samuel didn’t get to school on time. There were Sandra’s “flings”, mostly with other women, which left her husband angry and jealous.
All these issues, and more, will be aired in court, where the defence and prosecution seem to speak over one another at will. It’s a reminder the French court system is noticeably different from the more familiar American version. The dialogue switches between French and English, the latter being the language in which Sandra feels more comfortable. As she is German and Samuel was French, English became the common ground of their domestic life, but even this was a source of tension.
It adds another layer of linguistic ambiguity to the already tortuous problem of separating hypothesis from fact. The prosecutor even goes so far as to quote a passage from one of Sandra’s novels in which a wife contemplates murdering her husband, but if this sort of authorial fallacy were admissable as evidence every major writer would have seen out their days behind bars.
It doesn’t mean Sandra is not a fantasist in everyday life, or that she is being completely honest with the court, or indeed with her own lawyers.
A large part of the case hangs on Daniel’s testimony, but his story keeps changing, as he gets “mixed up”. It’s an understandable reaction to the spectacle of his parents’ relationship being put under the microscope in court. As one unpleasant secret after another is unearthed his sympathies (and ours!) alternate between husband and wife. If Sandra can seem neither likeable nor trustworthy, Samuel had his own problems, held at bay by anti-depresssants.
Sandra Hüller, who was so good in Maren Ade’s offbeat comedy, Toni Erdmann (2016), is perfect in the lead role. Not a pinup by any means, she can be tough or vulnerable, impassive or seductive. Throughout the shoot Triet allegedly refused to tell Hüller whether her character was innocent or guilty. The ambiguity only seems to have bolstered a performance that has already gathered a swag of awards, with more to come.
The sheer length of Anatomy of a Fall seems designed to confirm this is no straightforward crime drama. The “fall” is not only Samuel’s plummet from the third floor, it’s the decline of a marriage, and we know that’s never a speedy process. Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) occupied six hour-long episides.
The psychological struggle between Sandra and Samuel is reconstructed in the trial as the lawyers put their own portraits of the couple in front of judge and jury. In this contest, as in Sandra’s novels, it becomes impossible to separate truth from fiction – which may be one reason the lead characters have the same first names as the actors. By the end we are left wondering if the point is not to discover what happened, but to show the impossibility of proving whether someone is ever definitively innocent or guilty.
Blitz Bazawule’s new version of The Color Purple has been getting very positive responses, but when it comes to musicals I’m the last person to ask. I’ll listen to anything from Palestrina to Nirvana but have never had the slightest interest in seeing those blockbuster musicals on stage. It’s chiefly the music I can’t stand – syrupy and sentimental, full of forced cheerfulness with big choruses, a grotesque form of pop with operatic pretentions, made to a formula. When I’ve had to watch the film versions of musicals such as Les Miserables or Cats, it’s been a kind of torture. If this means I’m a musical snob, so be it.
And so, with The Color Purple, whenever the poor black folks in Georgia took a break from the cruelty and misery that surrounded them, and started singing and dancing, I felt a strong urge to head for the exit. Instead, I stayed the distance, and was rewarded with approximately one surprising and spontaneous laugh. The overwhelming bulk of the story is pure melodrama, in which the good people like Miss Celie (Fantasia Barrina), are so good they set your teeth on edge, while the baddies are simply horrid.
On the face of it, there’s not a lot in Celie’s life that warrants musical treatment. She is raped by the man she believes to be her father and gives birth to two children who are taken away from her. The film is strangely reticent on these points, so viewers may spend the first part of the story wondering who exactly, is the father of Celie’s children. Next, young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) is bartered away to a widower calling himself, Mister (Colman Domingo), who needs a wife for purposes of cooking, cleaning, child-raising and sexual relief. He is a violent, misogynistic bastard, and Celie is the very definition of ‘long-suffering’.
In addition, she is separated from her beloved sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey) whom Mister throws out of the house when she rejects his advances. Having taken a job as a governness and gone off to Africa, Nettie sends Celie numerous letters that Mister intercepts and conceals – and he’s not even collecting the stamps!
Relief arrives in the curvaceous form of jazz singer, Shug Avery (a no-holds-barred Taraji P. Henson) who is not prepared to take nonsense from any man, including Mister. Celie’s relationship with Shug, which becomes briefly sexual, is her passport to another life. She is able to give up the perpetual victimhood and seize control of her destiny.
Connected with Celie’s story is that of Sofia (Danielle Brooks), a large, loud, brash young woman who marries Mister’s son, Harpo (Corey Hawkins). Although Sofia is even harder on men’s fragile egos than Shug, she suffers under the heel of the institutionalised racism of the South, which has one law for whites and another for blacks.
Nevertheless, as this is a musical, we know that all bad things will be resolved in the end. As the director is from Ghana, he adds a little touch of Africa which makes the last scenes even more ridiculous. Steven Spielberg’s award winning 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel was pretty corny, but never frankly silly.
There’s no disputing that actors such as Barrino and Brooks are extraordinary singers, but the songs are so ghastly, their talent is thrown away. Along with the try-too-hard manipulation of the viewer’s emotions, this fable of empowerment delivers a familiar set of messages, alerting us that black people are nicer than whites, and women are nicer than men. I’m glad that’s finally sorted. The entire package is bathed in an evangelical glow that would seem to be part of the problem rather than a promise of salvation. It’s a very American scenario. Whether you’re an aspiring politician or a poor, oppressed black houseslave, a little of that old-fashioned religion goes a long way.
Anatomy of a Fall
Directed by Justine Triet
Written by Justine Triet & Arthur Harari
Starring: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Antoine Reinartz, Milo Machado Graner, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaïeb, Camille Rutherford, Anne Rotger, Sophie Fillière
France, MA 15+, 151 mins
The Color Purple
Directed by Blitz Bazawule
Written by Marcus Gardley, Marsha Norman
Starring: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi
USA, M, 141 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 January, 2024