In "Anatomy of a Fall," Justine Triet's alternately twisty and icily cerebral thriller, just about every narrator is unreliable.
As the film opens, author and translator Sandra Voyter (German actress Sandra Hller) is giving an interview to a besotted young graduate student in the living room of her rough-hewed chalet in the French Alps. Sandra's husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), is doing some construction work upstairs, playing a steel-drum version of 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P." at full volume, on mind-numbing repeat. Unable to outlast him, Sandra cuts short the interview, as well as the slow-burn flirtation that's been simmering with her dazzled interlocutor.
By the end of the day, Samuel will be discovered lying dead outside by Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), the couple's young son, who has impaired vision. That detail is both metaphor and plot point in a story that morphs from a whodunit - seriously, the incessant blasting of that song would drive anyone to extreme measures - to the portrait of a marriage in which intimacy, ambition, gender roles and self-deception play integral roles in Sandra and Samuel's passive-aggressive thrusts and parries.
Written by Triet and her husband, filmmaker Arthur Harari, 'Anatomy of a Fall' possesses the cool elegance and self-possession of Sandra, portrayed by Hller in a naturalistic tour de force of spiky confidence and lurking maternal guilt. (Between this film and the upcoming "The Zone of Interest," Hller's 2023 is turning out to be a barnburner.)
From domestic life in the chalet, where career and personal resentments have been building as steadily as the snow drifts that cocoon the cozy house, the film travels to the courtroom, where Sandra is defended by the dishy Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud). It's not particularly surprising that Sandra isn't just on trial for the murder of her husband: 'Anatomy of a Fall' becomes an allegory of all the ways women are judged and found wanting, from having too many or too few physical needs to not prioritising our children enough or simply not apologising for being flawed.
But Triet isn't content simply with staging a polemic; as the film unfolds, Daniel's struggle takes center stage, as he tries to reconcile his family's past and his own future. (He's assisted, physically and dramatically, by his service dog Snoop, impressively portrayed by a blue-eyed beauty named Messi. Samuel is vividly portrayed by Theis in brief but pungent flashbacks.)
'Anatomy of a Fall' won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and understandably so: It's the kind of craftily constructed, skillfully executed movie designed to mainline straight into sophisticated pleasure centers. If it sometimes feels a bit contrived, and if its conclusion will leave some viewers unsatisfied, Triet has made a film that succeeds brilliantly - on terms that are as exacting, rigorous and precise as her unflappable heroine.
Star Rating: Four stars out of 5.
(Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time.)