If the title Anatomy of a Fall recalls Anatomy of a Murder, it’s probably not an accident. Like Otto Preminger’s classic, the new film by French writer and director Justine Triet injects complex moral refinements into a genre that can often descend to cliché. For a genre film to win Cannes’s Palme d’Or is unusual, but in this case it’s merited.
We are in the French Alps, somewhere near Grenoble, where we’re introduced to Sandra, a successful novelist (played with authority and energy by the German actress Sandra Hüller) in the living room of her chalet. She is being interviewed by a pretty graduate student, Zoé (Camille Rutherford). Sandra is self-assured, charming. Flirtatious? Possibly. Things are going swimmingly when earsplitting music floods the chalet: 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” blaring from an upstairs room. Sandra explains to Zoé that her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) is trying to piss her off. Further conversation being impossible, Zoë departs. Sandra and Samuel’s prepubescent son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner, in a well-calibrated, sensitive performance) takes the border collie for a walk. When he comes back some time later, his father is lying in front of the chalet, dead. It appears he has fallen from the top storey.
It seems an unlikely accident, and the police’s suspicions are aroused when the wound on Samuel’s head appears more likely to have come from a blow than from hitting the ground or bouncing off the shed beneath the window. Might it have been suicide? Samuel was not a very happy man. He, too, sought success as a writer, but he had not achieved much of it. Murder seems the most likely possibility, and Sandra is soon charged. Her old friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud) arrives to act as her legal representative. Even he, who loves her, has a hard time believing her story—though he will do everything he can to save her.
In their preparation for the trial and the trial itself, and through flashbacks, the rot at the heart of Sandra and Samuel’s marriage is slowly revealed. Samuel was deeply resentful of his wife’s career and of the ease with which she assumed that she would get all the time and space she needed for writing while he took on much of the housework and homeschooled Daniel. The homeschooling, however, was his decision; he was consumed by guilt over an accident he felt was partly his fault, in which Daniel lost much of his eyesight. It turns out that Sandra and Samuel had a fight just before the fall—a fact she tries to conceal—and Samuel recorded it, supposedly as material for the novel he was writing. The recording of their argument, thick with rage and resentment, is played for the benefit of judge and jury.
Neither partner comes out well. Samuel seems to have been whiny, bitter, passive-aggressive, while Sandra, though the more attractive character, is high-handed, arrogant, entitled. The fact that Sandra is not comfortable speaking French and Samuel spoke no German is indicative of their basic inability to understand each other; they communicated in English, not a first language for either of them. What makes all this painful for the viewer is that we see much of it from the point of view of Daniel, who as a witness and active participant in the trial is spared nothing. That is, he spares himself nothing, insisting on being in the courtroom even while sensitive subjects are examined, against the advice of the judge. Did Sandra kill her husband? We never actually find out. There are arguments to be made on both sides of the question. What’s interesting is that she could have done; we know it, and yet we rather like her anyway. Daniel, it seems, also does not know what to think. But with the help of his court-appointed caregiver Marge (the stunning Jehnny Beth), he uses his considerable intelligence and sense of discipline to make a decision and act accordingly.
Sandra, charismatic and possibly dangerous, is the shining center of this film, but the supporting characters are treated with meticulous respect. We can easily understand how the handsome, petulant Samuel must have infuriated Sandra; his loud music and his recording of a marital fight almost seemed grounds for murder in themselves! The quiet, watchful (despite his poor eyesight) Daniel is beautifully rendered and portrayed. Vincent, driven by a futile love for the woman he can never quite believe is innocent, adds an extra touch of sadness. Even the dog delivers a star performance. The interplay of the characters both in and out of the courtroom demonstrates the infinitely complicated nature of relationships, particularly within a dysfunctional family. And aren’t all families at least a little bit dysfunctional?
I was rather taken aback by the courtroom scenes, which seemed impossibly Gallic: the lawyers, including an aggressive prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz), encourage the defendant and witnesses to go into considerable detail about their thoughts and feelings in a manner that would never fly in an American or British trial. I wondered whether Justine Triet was taking artistic liberties, but after doing a bit of research on the subject, I discovered that this is, indeed, how French courtroom trials are conducted. Amazing!
Another excellent French film, The Night of the 12th, was released in the U.S. with much less fanfare than Anatomy of a Fall, though it too was a notable success in its home country, winning the César for best film. Why do some foreign films get such a buildup, while others, just as worthy, have to slip in unheralded?
The Night of the 12th has several qualities in common with Anatomy of a Fall. It, too, is set in and around Grenoble; it is a serious movie in the guise of a genre piece, in this case a standard policier; and it spotlights the difficulty of finding truth and apportioning blame after a violent crime. We are told at the very beginning of The Night of the 12th that the film is based on a real crime, one that was never solved. So we are aware from the outset that what seems like an ordinary police procedural will not have the usual ending.
The action opens at the retirement party for an outgoing police captain. It is a jovial, boozy, very male affair: of the forty or so people in attendance, you can only spot two women, both well in the background. As well as honoring the retiree, the gathering celebrates his boyish replacement, Yohan (the fresh-faced Bastien Bouillon).
Before the night is over, Yohan will be launched on his first case. Twenty-one-year-old Clara (Lula Cotton-Frapier) has left a party in a nearby town that same evening to walk home alone. On her way, she is stopped by a man in a hoodie, who hurls gasoline at her and sets her alight. When her charred body is discovered in the morning, there is no trace of any assailant. Yohan and his team—his older, experienced lieutenant Marceau (Bouli Lanners) and several other men—are brought in from Grenoble by the local authorities.
From all accounts, Clara was an absolutely ordinary and unremarkable young woman. Cheerful, well liked, beloved and mourned by her parents and her best friend Stéphanie (Pauline Serieys). Her father says she was “joyeuse,” and Stéphanie describes her as “pas compliquée”: an easygoing girl who got along with everyone. Boyfriends? Well, yes. The parents mention a guy called Wesley who worked with Clara at a nearby bowling alley; Stéphanie says that she tended to fall in love easily.
The squad heads to the bowling alley to interview Wesley (Baptiste Perais), an ungracious fellow who reveals that Clara was just a piece on the side, kept secret from his real girlfriend, and in any case not really his type. And he has an alibi. “Un grand romantique,” Yohan comments dryly as they head out the door. Next stop is chez Jules (Jules Porier), a somewhat effeminate young man who lives with his grandmother and knows Clara from the gym. He admits to being what he calls (in Franglais) “sex friends,” but they were not a couple. At one point he begins, repellently, to giggle. What is so funny? He, too, has an alibi.
The boyfriends, all casual ones, get worse and worse. There’s Gabi (Nathanaël Beausivoir), a prime suspect for a while because he actually wrote a rap song about setting Clara on fire. There’s Denis (Benjamin Blanchy), a revolting layabout who does nothing, according to Stéphanie, but smoke weed and jerk off. And there’s a wifebeating thug . . . Yohan tries to release tension that builds up every day on his nightly bicycle rides, but he performs them on a track, going round and round in a bizarre reflection of the way his mind is going round and round too—like a hamster, Marceau says. They haven’t found the murderer, but they have found a string of repugnant men. As Yohan and Marceau agree, any one of these men could have done it, though it seems none of them did.
Director and screenwriter Dominik Moll works so subtly that it takes quite a while for the film’s theme to sink in. As Yohan reflects, “If we don’t find the killer it’s because all men killed Clara. Something’s wrong between men and women.” He mulls over the fact that it’s mostly men who kill, and mostly men who solve the crimes. His own squad, until just before the end, is exclusively male. And being male brings certain assumptions. These guys are not old-school chauvinists like the macho creeps Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) had to cope with in Prime Suspect thirty years ago; they are relatively evolved twenty-first-century specimens. But still. When Yohan berates Stéphanie for not revealing to him the number of men Clara was involved with, she breaks down in tears. She hadn’t wanted the police to see Clara as a slut, to feel she’d asked for what she got. That’s not who Clara was, she insists. She was nice. “Do you know why she was killed?” she asks Yohan. “Because she was a girl.” And indeed Clara’s sexual adventurousness would not raise eyebrows if she had been a man. Mulling over all this, Yohan becomes highly sensitized to casual comments from his team about Clara being an easy lay, or having a penchant for rough stuff and bad boys.
It’s dark material; but Moll surprises us with a rather upbeat ending. The turbulent Marceau leaves Grenoble and finds peace; his replacement is a woman, of all things, and a subtly intelligent one at that. The tightly wound Yohan seems somehow liberated and finally abandons his hamster wheel bicycle track for the glorious Alps. Moll is a terrific, skillful director. His 2000 psychological thriller, With a Friend Like Harry, was a superb example of the genre, as was his more recent Only the Animals; but those films, too, were sadly undersold in the United States. He deserves renown in this country as well as in Europe.
Another atmospherically effective use of a mountain setting, The Beasts—a Franco-Spanish production set in the Galician mountains rather than the Alps, also features a murder, but here the point is not the violence of the crime, but instead the conditions that give birth to it—conditions that are as pertinent to us in the United States as they are in a Spanish village, and as poisonous.
Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Olga (Marina Foïs) are a fifty-ish French couple who have come to Spain to pursue a dream Antoine has nourished for many years: creating an organic farm in these beautiful mountains and fixing up a few of the area’s decrepit old stone houses. It’s a modest dream, and Antoine and Olga are modest people, not exactly one’s idea of insensitive gentrifiers. They postponed their move to Spain for years, until they could scrape together enough cash to get started with, and they live an exceedingly simple life. But everything is relative, and the local subsistence farmers who are their closest neighbors, brothers Xan (Luis Zahera) and Lorenzo (Diego Anido) hate them as privileged interlopers, people of “intellectual superiority” who will transform the area until there is no place left for them, the locals. Historical memory is long in these mountains, and so is bitterness against the French. Napoleon’s invasion, and the rumor that the conqueror called the Galicians “idiots de merde,” still rankles.
Xan harangues Antoine threateningly at the village café. “In your imaginary urban development programs here,” he rails, “haven’t you realized that we don’t fit in with your plan? Can’t you see that when all those people come to live here, attracted by your organic lettuces, the pure air and mother nature herself who gave birth to us all, when they see our ugly faces, they’ll hotfoot it back to their countries?” And Antoine has added insult to injury by refusing to sign an agreement that would allow a wind turbine company access to village land. It’s not just because the turbines would be unsightly; he recognizes that the company’s offer is far too low. But Xan and Lorenzo are desperate to get away and believe their share of the money could pay for their move to a city. “You’ve been playing at farming for two years,” he tells Antoine. “I’ve been here fifty-two. Lorenzo, forty-five. My mother, seventy-three. We’re fed up with being miserable. But the worst thing—we didn’t know we were miserable until the wind turbine developers came and showed us the figures. And every time I get up at five in the morning with a hellish hangover and my back in agony, I think of you. . . . All I want is a woman like yours. Impossible, there aren’t any. And a child? Can I have one? It’s impossible here.”
One cannot fail to be moved by the despair of rural poverty—something I witness at home in Upstate New York often. And yet Xan and Lorenzo are very frightening. They begin to stalk and menace Antoine, and he, increasingly riled up, films his contretemps with them, though Olga begs him not to: she senses that having the camera trained on them only increases their rage. We sympathize with Antoine, but it begins to seem as if he is somewhat complicit in the escalation of the drama; that his behavior exacerbates theirs; that he is standing on principle because he can afford to, while the two Spaniards have nothing to lose. The standoff inevitably ends in violence, and the film makes an abrupt shift in tone and texture. Its second part comprises Olga’s long quest for justice, aided by her daughter (Marie Colomb), who arrives from France to be with her.
The Beasts is a disturbing work on several levels. Olga’s wish for vengeance is understandable—and yet we feel as much pity for the benighted brothers as horror at their act. Then there is the apparently unbridgeable division between people like the French couple and those like Xan and Lorenzo: class, education, possibilities. It is a division that is painfully apparent in our own country, which has long prided itself, with dubious justification, as being far less class conscious than bad old Europe. And on some level this film seemed to me to be delivering a pessimistic judgment on the future of the European Union. Ancient hatreds and resentments do not disappear with the signing of a treaty.
The film is remarkably beautiful; the audience will readily understand why Antoine fell under this landscape’s spell. But again, people mired in poverty and backbreaking labor don’t see the beauty. Xan and Lorenzo would happily trade these glorious mountains for a little flat in Madrid and jobs as hardworking taxi drivers. And that is a tragedy in its own right.
Now to cross the Channel . . . I wouldn’t have gone to see The Great Escaper, a film about a real man who snuck out of his nursing home in Britain to attend the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy and created a great media splash, if it hadn’t starred the great Michael Caine. Caine, I thought, had simply never made a bad movie. When I looked up his filmography in IMDB, I found that this was absolutely not the case, but he has been very lucky; his bad movies have sunk like the proverbial stones, while his good ones are so very good—to a large extent because of his own commanding presence—that one never forgets them. Alfie, The Ipcress File, Zulu, Funeral in Berlin, A Bridge Too Far, The Man Who Would Be King, Deathtrap, Mona Lisa: it’s a formidable list. One wonders what his career would have looked like if he had been a generation or two younger, because his best roles tended to bristle with what would nowadays be deemed toxic masculinity. I recently saw Caine in Get Carter (1971) and was stunned (and subversively delighted) that writer/director Mike Hodges got away with making his “hero” such a beast, bedding and discarding women with easy brutality. This is the type of role Caine has always done best, though he turned to lighter character parts in later years—Miss Congeniality, Now You See Me, Children of Men. A few years ago he announced that although he was old (he is now 90), he would not be accepting any dementia roles, and he stuck with that decision although it might not have been a good one: Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore won Oscars for playing dementia victims, after all, and Julie Christie received a nomination. But as a darling old man in The Great Escaper, Caine is not exactly typecast. All the more reason, perhaps, to see what he can still do, especially since he has just informed the press that this film will be his last—as it was for Glenda Jackson, who died shortly after it was completed.
If it weren’t for Caine’s emotionally charged performance, The Great Escaper would be no better than other films of its ilk: small, literate British films made for a shrinking audience of elderly, literate Anglo-Americans. But Caine, even in extreme old age, is still Caine, thank God. In early scenes he (as pensioner Bernard Jordan) and Jackson (as his wife Irene) putter around their care home, from which Bernard makes occasional forays to the shops, pushing his walker with some effort along the seaside pavement. Caine vividly gets across the difficulty of movement at that time of life—but perhaps he doesn’t actually have to act! Bernard and Irene have had a loving and happy marriage and are keenly aware of the approaching Reaper.
The word “escaper” in the title is a bit of a misnomer. Bernard has all his marbles and is not under surveillance; he comes and goes from the care home as he pleases. When he decides to head for Normandy for the big celebration, he simply walks out of the door and gets in a bus for Dover. Irene knows where he’s gone and says nothing until it’s too late for the staff to intervene; he’s already on the boat.
He’s got no spare clothes and not much cash. Fortunately for him, he is befriended by another aged pilgrim, Arthur (John Standing, in a lovely performance; the two men appeared onscreen together nearly fifty years ago in The Eagle Has Landed). Traveling alone, Arthur has room for one more in his digs, and so the pair team up. Each man has a personal mission that must be fulfilled at Bayeux Cemetery. Bernard is there to place a memento on the grave of his best friend, a tank commander who was blown up before his eyes on D-Day. Arthur is haunted by his brother, collateral damage in an RAF raid run by Arthur himself.
The three central performances—Caine, Jackson, Standing—are powerful tours de force by a remarkable trio of old pros. The supporting material and performances are less successful. Danielle Vitalis is given the unenviable task of playing a nursing home attendant so sweet and daughterly that no one who has ever set foot in such an institution will believe in her for an instant. And Laura Marcus and Will Fletcher are given the equally thankless jobs of portraying the younger, wartime Bernard and Irene in flashback scenes. The problem here is that we know what Caine and Jackson really looked like when they were that age, and they were emphatically not a square-jawed Clark Kent type and a fluffy blonde. And the flashbacks themselves could have been thought out with more imagination and flair.
Still, the movie is worth seeing. In his recent political screed Chums, journalist Simon Kuper described the manner in which, in today’s Britain, “family tragedies—the dead of two world wars—[have] been recast, with the passing of time, as glories.” This is true, and what lifts The Great Escaper above banality is that it elevates the tragedy over the glory, largely through the master class in film acting we get from its three not-quite-decrepit stars.