Producers: Marie-Ange Luciani and David Thion   Director: Justine Triet   Screenplay: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari   Cast: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaïeb, Camille Rutherford, Anne Rotger and Sophie Fillières   Distributor: Neon

Grade: B+

Justice Triet’s film, a Cannes award winner, can be described formally as a courtroom drama, but it employs the devices of that genre to explore the inner workings of a troubled family enmeshed in the legal system as the result of a tragedy that may or may not have involved murder.  The question that drives the plot is whether Sandra (Sandra Hüller) killed her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) or whether he died as the result of accident or suicide, and our limited perspective is mirrored in that of Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), their eleven-year old, visually impaired son, whose struggle to understand what happened is not unlike our own.

Sanda Voyter and Samuel Maleski are both writers, but she’s far more prolific and successful than he.  Nonetheless she’s acceded to his wish to move with their son Daniel to a chalet in the French Alps near Grenoble, where he was born, after he tires of teaching in London—despite the fact that she’s German by birth, and French is not her first language.  We’re introduced to the household when a tipsy Sandra is being interviewed in the chalet’s living room by an attractive graduate student Zoé (Camille Rutherford), but must break off the conversation—which has centered more on the interviewee—because the unseen Samuel, refurbishing the third floor, is playing music (an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” on a loop) at ear-splitting volume.

Soon after, when Daniel returns from a walk in the snow with his dog Snoop, he finds his father dead, having tumbled from the third floor balcony.  Police investigators arrive and find a deep gash in the man’s head.  Was it caused by a blow from a heavy object before he fell, or did it happen when he hit a metal shed on the ground?   And had Sandra really been dozing in her room at the time, though the music was still blaring?  The authorities conclude that she had clobbered him and pushed the body over the railing, and charge her with his murder.

In the trial that follows, the prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz), bald and aggressive, is in stark contrast to Sandra’s counsel Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), an old friend of hers with flowing locks and a calm, diffident manner, and his colleague Nour (Saadia Bentaïeb).  Evidence is presented to portray a marriage in crisis, partly as a result of the fact that Samuel harbored a feeling of guilt about the accident that led to Daniel’s partial blindness; a recording Samuel had made of an argument between him and his wife the day before his death—which Triet cannily turns into a visual flashback—shows that he blamed her for his professional failures, even accusing her of having stolen ideas for books from him.  Zoé testifies to Samuel’s conduct right before his death.  His therapist affirms that his patient felt emasculated by Sandra’s literary eminence and strong personality, as well as her sexual inclinations.  Two forensic experts are called to testify, and present diametrically opposed theories about the fall, each claiming that the conclusions of the other are practically impossible.  The lawyers even use the couple’s writings to make their points.  While the prosecutor argues murder, Vincent and Nour counter that accident or suicide is likelier.  And Sandra, often apologizing for her halting French and turning to English, parries the prosecutor’s insinuations as the presiding judge (Anne Rotger) looks on imperiously.    

And sitting through the proceedings is Daniel, who recounts what he remembers of the day of his father’s death but falters in some details.  He rejects suggestions that he should be kept from the courtroom, but because he is a witness is protected from possible interference from his mother by the appointment of a monitor (Jehnny Beth) who will join them in the chalet to ensure that Sandra doesn’t mold his memories to her advantage.  But the boy becomes a central player in the latter stages of the trial, as he asks for Sandra to leave their house and to be permitted to testify again; he also undertakes an experiment with Snoop to answer questions that have been haunting him.  Daniel’s desperate yearning to assuage suspicions he’s harboring about his mother’s guilt and his father’s mental state take center stage.

That’s why, though Hüller gives an extraordinarily nuanced performance as the complex Sandra, it’s Machado-Graner you might find most memorable.  Triet’s periodic return to sequences of him practicing piano act as a sort of recurrent motif as she doles out the turns of the plot at a mostly unhurried tempo, though she works with cinematographer Simon Beaufils and editor Laurent Sénéchal (as well as hyperactive Reinartz) to add tension and occasional visceral excitement to the courtroom testimony.  And when she inserts a scene showing Daniel’s reaction to news reports of the verdict, the impact is wrenching.  The remaining cast are all excellent as well.

Emphasizing ambiguity and taking a literate approach, Triet’s engrossing film doesn’t revolutionize the courtroom drama, but it’s an unusually layered and intelligent example of the genre.