In one of the most poignant scenes of celebrated Hindi dramatist Mohan Rakesh’s iconic play, Aadhe Adhure, Savitri recalls being brutalised by her husband Mahinder. Her fault-being the breadwinner of their family of four while Mahindra allowed himself to be consumed by self-pity, perceived emasculation and jealousy.
Anatomy of a Fall, this year’s Palme d’Or winning film (Best Picture) at the Cannes Film Festival, is a successor to Mohan Rakesh’s sensibility. More than half a century later, a French film invokes similar tensions around men’s eternal struggle with emasculating women. Women who kill them, slowly or at once. Ostensibly, a courtroom whodunnit, the film raises pertinent questions about gender relations without being didactic.
Those who have spared a breath or more on the rank misogyny of Ranbir Kapoor’s Animal – which is predictably a blockbuster – must watch Anatomy.
The film opens with Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), a novelist, being interviewed by a young literature student in a secluded French chalet. Mid-interview, pop music starts blasting upstairs and Sandra tells the befuddled interviewer that it’s her husband (Samuel Theis) and that the interview is over. A few minutes later, Samuel Maleski, Voyter’s academic husband, is found dead by their blind son and the family dog. This is the first in a series of uneasy discoveries in the course of the film.
It is revealed that Sandra and Samuel move to Grenoble from London to be able to deal better with their financial distress. Samuel also wants to treat this move away from the city as an opportunity to resume work on his long-pending book. He, instead, we are told, busies himself with renovating the chalet. When Sandra was interviewed, Samuel worked in the loft while listening to loud music.
Why do men find it almost insurmountably difficult to deal with a situation when the spotlight is not on them? Why do we still see women through the problematic lens of traditional gendered roles? Samuel evokes sympathy, post-mortem, just by virtue of being the male version of a domestically inclined woman. Someone who takes a career a bit easy to be able to care for a child with special needs. He continues with his academic job, makes the decision to move to his hometown, and repairs the newly bought chalet. But all of these choices make him deeply unhappy and dissatisfied especially when he sees himself pitted against an immensely successful spouse.
During the courtroom scenes, the inherent misogyny of “systems” comes to the fore as Sandra is deemed guilty of murdering her husband by almost everyone. In an era where intimate partner violence against women is a glaring reality, the ease with which her guilt is presumed drives home the prejudices that women must operate within for survival. Sample this latest finding from the US Department of Justice:
“Of the estimated 4,970 female victims of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter in 2021, data reported by law enforcement agencies indicates that 34% were killed by an intimate partner. By comparison, about 6% of the 17,970 males murdered that year were victims of intimate partner homicide.”
When the 11-year-old son of Sandra and Samuel, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) becomes the key witness in the case, there is a sense of foreboding around his testimony. Has this child, too, internalised patriarchal attitudes? Or is he poised to be a different man, home-schooled as he is by his father and not so close to his mother? Will he defy the gendered rubrics that still operate in most households? The presence of Sandra’s former admirer (Swann Arlaud) as an attorney in the case complicates the issue even further. Does anyone trust Sandra? Will she be able to pull her innocence off, just like her success as a novelist?
Sandra has to defend not just herself but her creative production, too. Her characters are also on trial. The film also raises the question of artistic morality. Do artists get away with operating in the grey zones of amorality? How much of themselves do they distil in their works? Can their art be called to the witness box?
During the trial, a lot is revealed about not just the victim and the suspect but also the people involved in the proceedings. Are legal processes still stuck in the virgin-witch double-barrelled gun?
Sandra moved to a chalet in the French Alps at the instance of her French husband, mimicking most women upending their own lives for a life together with their partners. But is it enough for Samuel? They speak in English, a middle language for both of them. Is that enough for Samuel? Sandra keeps cajoling Samuel to resume his writing and gives feedback. Is that enough for Samuel? Or, is it all a trap for Samuel?
The prosecution feels Samuel’s blood incriminates Sandra. At a metaphorical level, his whole being incriminates her. Can Sandra wipe these blood stains off? Justine Triet’s film works equally well at both levels. And at both these levels, the family dog plays a key role.
It’s always the dog that saves your soul. And that’s the animal we need around us.
(Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based author and academic.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.