The tension in Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning drama “Anatomy of a Fall” is constant beginning with the opening scene where German novelist Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) is being interviewed by a student when her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) decides to blare an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” from upstairs of their villa in the French Alps. He does it on purpose, the couple had a bad argument the night before. 11-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) decides to take the dog for a walk only to return and find his father lying dead in a pool of blood. Accident, or was he murdered? Sandra becomes the prime suspect in the thrilling courtroom drama that keeps you in suspense.

There’s nothing like a good courtroom drama. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Verdict,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” etc., but before we get to the courtroom scenes, Triet sets the stage by laying out the clues. An autopsy reveals that Samuel died from brain trauma from a blunt object, evident by the deep gash on the side of his head. He was on the third floor when he supposedly fell out the window. Was the gash obtained from the shed below or was Samuel hit before falling three stories? The autopsy is inconclusive and foul play has not been ruled out.

Written by Triet and Arthur Harari, the film begins as a murder mystery and merges into a psychological thriller as Sandra and Samuel’s marriage is put under the microscope, after all, she is the prime suspect, being the only person in the house at the time. Sandra emphatically denies any wrongdoing. Time to lawyer up.

Hüller is known for wowing audiences, she was terrific in 2016’s “Toni Erdmann” and countless other films including “Exile” and “I’m Your Man.” The German actress has a great poker face. You’re never sure what she’s thinking. A trait that serves this story exceptionally well.

French actor Swann Arlaud (“By the Grace of God”) plays Sandra’s lawyer Vincent, an old friend who’s more concerned about building a defense than believing she’s innocent. “So, as you can see an accidental fall is going to be hard to defend” he explains while pointing out the inconsistencies regarding the DNA and trajectory of the fall. Sandra interjects, “Stop, stop, I did not kill him.” Vincent pauses and explains calmly, “That’s not the point.”

Once Sandra is officially indicted and the film becomes a searing courtroom drama, the audience bears witness to the deconstruction of a marriage. Daniel is almost completely blind as the result of an accident that happened when he was with Samuel. Sandra blamed her husband (she’ says for only a few days), other facts are revealed including multiple affairs on Sandra’s part with women (Samuel knew she states), and then there’s her defense, Samuel was suicidal, something Daniel says he was unaware of.

The prosecuting attorney or L’avocat general is played by Antoine Reinartz (BPM”), he’s young, relentless, and a bit theatrical. The French court system differs greatly from ours. In a way, it’s looser with very few objections (no need for that) as the defense and prosecution directly fire back at each other. It’s thrilling to watch. Also, the language alters between French and English as Sandra prefers to speak in English citing her French is not very good. The family was living in London before Samuel uprooted them to France where he grew up citing it was better for his writing.

And what about those bruises on Sandra’s arm discovered at the time of Samuel’s death? There are plenty of other secrets divulged during the trial where Daniel becomes the star witness but for whom?

Justine Triet puts the audience in the jury’s position. We must decide if Sandra is guilty, or innocent based on the evidence and her testimony. When the camera moves outside the courtroom there are no clues to sway us in either direction, therefore the audience is absorbing every detail.

“Anatomy of a Fall” will keep you on the edge of your seat. A thriller in the true sense of the word with a knockout performance by Sandra Hüller.

(4 stars)

Now showing in theaters

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