Anatomy of a Fall Is About Marriage — But Also About the Trials of Being an Expat

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Everyone wants to talk about Anatomy of a Fall as a dissection of marriage: the impossibility of relationships, the petty one-upmanship that infects so many of our connections with the people we love most (or used to love most), illustrated most beautifully and plainly in the opening scene, when “German bisexual novelist Sandra Voyter” (per Wikipedia) sees her quasi-flirty afternoon with a journalist interrupted by her husband, Samuel, playing a cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” as loudly as possible. (That it is a steel-drum calypso cover only heightens the insult.)

But it is not only this low-simmering grievance, or Sandra’s bisexuality, so often pushed to the fore as a personal quality of extreme dubiousness. (Why wouldn’t a bisexual woman kill her husband??? duh????), that functions as a presentation of guilt. It is her Germanness — more specifically, her non-Frenchness — that gives the film so much of its antagonistic shimmer.

What do we know about Sandra? We know, as above, she is a bisexual German novelist. Now, the film (and obviously director Justine Triet) is well aware that each of these qualities positions Sandra, within the film’s moral world, as unusual, as an outsider, and therefore not to be trusted (and possibly, quite probably, also a murderer). The main question is which of these qualities is worst — is the one most likely to lead to a literal indictment — and I would argue that it is the one in the middle. We know she is German. We know that Germany and France are not currently at war, but historically have been, quite a lot, with Germany predominantly in the role of the antagonist. Sandra is German in the film in a way that aligns with our ideas about how a German might be, whatever the current demographic reality: She is plain-talking, emotionally blunt, fair-skinned and fair-haired. And she has been brought to this place she never wanted to be by her husband, the Frenchman, who has finally come home.

This is why I think Anatomy of a Fall is so interesting as a portrait of a marriage involving an expat — and particularly of the slow slide that occurs when love becomes coercion. As Sandra’s case comes to trial, we discover that she and Samuel first lived as a family in London — if their marriage was not thriving, even then, it did not, at that point, involve accusations of murder. Perhaps this was because even though it was marked by grave misfortune — their son’s injury in a car accident — it was stabilized by the equalizing force of two expats, living abroad, neither speaking their maternal tongue in their daily lives. Following that injury, the family — broke and on its heels — retreats to Samuel’s home country. (The film was shot in the alpine Savoie département, bordering northern Italy and immediately south of Lyon.) But this was not what Sandra wanted. She did not want to come to his home, with its cheese and alpine lakes. Not for nothing, but this part of France, like most of them, is exceptionally beautiful — but it doesn’t look beautiful in the film. It just looks cold and unwelcoming. Her husband is home, and she is not.

Anyone who’s ever been to the préfecture to process a visa will sympathize with the many scenes of the trial, in which government officials of all sorts speak the French of officialdom with puissance (and unforgiving velocity). I bet Sandra can do most things she’d need to do in France, in French, without much trouble — but defending herself for murder??? Mais non. As time progresses, we see Sandra’s language ability improve alongside it — it was impossible not to think of the trial of Amanda Knox, who came to Italy as an exchange student and was convicted for the murder of her roommate but ultimately freed. The parallel was no accident, as reported by Paris Match:

J’ai été fascinée par l’affaire Amanda Knox, une jeune américaine accusée de meurtres en Italie. Je me souviens qu’il y avait évidemment beaucoup plus de preuves pour un type qui était passé dans le coin, mais la fille était tellement belle, qu’en fait, c’était plus intéressant d’imaginer qu’il y ait le mal derrière ce visage magnifique. Donc l’affaire a pris un tour délirant. Cela m’avait beaucoup marqué. À un moment donné, tout devient un récit. L’affaire judiciaire, c’est un récit et il y a des récits plus intéressants que d’autres. Une romancière très belle qui écrit des romans soi-disant autobiographiques sur des histoires de meurtres, c’est plus passionnant qu’un mec qui s’est suicidé.

But there Sandra is, struggling to explain the intricacies of a relationship — which would bedevil anyone in their most private conversations — in another language. (And in fact, actress Sandra Hüller asked to perform her scenes in a more-competent French, but the director insisted: She would rely instead on English, the not-too-hot, not-too-cold porridge of expats worldwide.) It makes me think that if coercion is the foundational sin of all failed relationships — one person wanted something the other one didn’t, and insisted upon it — the worst coercion here wasn’t the violation on a near-monopoly of affections (via Sandra’s numerous affairs) or the sequestering of her talent he, perhaps unintentionally, forced upon her, as his own failures required her to let her own star shine a little more dimly, in the name of marital calm. Worth murdering someone? Probably not. But Sandra’s expatness is as much a weapon for the prosecution as blood-stain evidence and expert testimony. And Samuel’s insistence on returning to the place he called home — the one thing it could never, truly, be for her — was the small act of self-regard that ultimately destroyed his marriage, and led to his fall from a window some years in the future, whether by his hand, or his wife’s.

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Hi, I'm Diana. I've written about travel for The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, The Cut, Travel + Leisure, Outside, and lots of other places. This is my blog.