February 20, 2024

5 Impactful Questions & Lessons from “Anatomy of a Fall.”

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I sat down with a crochet project one Sunday afternoon to watch “Anatomy of a Fall.”

It got an Oscar nomination. The trailer shows a boy returning from walking his dog to find his dad’s lifeless body below their French chalet with a pool of blood beside him in the snow. Accident, suicide, or murder? A courtroom drama unfolds like a marital autopsy. I find the whole premise compelling, but I rent it, expecting once will be enough. Some free time materializes the next day and what do I do? I watch it again almost immediately.

It affected me. Why? The easy answer is that I needed to understand, like Daniel the boy who finds his dad. Also true: I’m a therapist and I work with couples, so questions of life or love done right or gone awry capture my interest. More true: That movie stirred things within me that wouldn’t rest until I paid them some attention.

To peel another layer of the onion, the couple’s conflicts resonated with specificity with mine, before my divorce. That was years ago but my body tightened reflexively when Samuel voiced the same complaints I used to. I’ve worked with couples for decades and never has one emphasized the same word before. He’s the one who ended up dead. He also struggled with writing. I’m sure that moved me to untangle my reactions this way. I won’t give away the ending, but I’ll warn you the film doesn’t either. The finish feels more like a transition.

The last way I would want anyone to hear my story is vetted through my former spouse, or through our repetitive, unproductive arguments. I often reassure couples that none of us are our best selves when fighting with our partner. I’m mindful of that as we become acquainted with Samuel primarily through Sandra’s eyes and voice which still enunciates his name in my memory, the accent on the second syllable. SamWell.

We get to know her through conversations with her lawyer and her testimony in court. I’m confused that she admits to affairs and calls Samuel her soul mate as if there’s no contradiction. I hate the way her sexuality is on trial, but I find myself judging her too. Very convenient, I think, the only lawyer you happen to know is one who was once “hopelessly in love” with you. Yet I detest how Samuel’s therapist describes her as “castrating.” Is there even an equivalent term to villainize a man? She’s a human Rorschach inkblot.

I’m in knots watching, so their son Daniel’s answer to the question of whether it would hurt him to be present in the courtroom pierces me. “I’ve already been hurt.” Distracted with my crochet project the first time, I miss some of the clues that he’s visually impaired. He’s mature for 11, which strikes me as perhaps some evidence of post-traumatic growth. I wonder if I’d miss the resilience if I were a parent with any role in the chain of events leading to the accident.

The dialog shifting between English and French adds complexity. I have to pause my crocheting and find the subtitle setting on my television. I only speak English. France is Samuel’s native country; Germany is hers. They both speak English at home, calling it a compromise in one of their fights. On their better days, I wonder if it was also a reminder of the place they met and fell in love, England. When I work with couples, I like to start with the “love story,” in part to help them remember it.

Sandra’s attorney is aggravated that she fails to reveal a critical detail, an argument with Samuel the day before he died. She protests that it is not “reality.” I’m surprised to find that I agree with her. The wounds and defenses that emerge in the pressure of an argument don’t reflect the wholeness inside either person. I disagree too, because there’s rich fodder for growth and healing within that friction where their inner lives and the outer world all collide. That potential is lost, though, if it can’t be conveyed in a constructive way.

Our Relationships Mirror the One We Have With Ourselves

The “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that tend to predict divorce were all evident in their marriage—criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Somehow their presence, mixed with the murder/suicide question, left me pondering how our relationships mirror what’s inside us. When those horsemen are prominent in a marriage, of course they bleed into the psyches of each partner. Right? Likewise, an inner life full of self-criticism, self-hatred, denial, or dissociation must affect the marital climate. It’s not cause-effect, but more a matter of reciprocal influence.

I can’t get over how Samuel emphasized that same word I always did. Reciprocity. It sits at the tip of a big iceberg for me. I felt his pain over the struggle to find space for creativity amid his work and family responsibilities. I felt his anger about how Sandra benefits from his accommodating nature and the resulting inequity. I felt the sting of her disdain for his scorekeeping, by how fiercely she deflected blame and held him accountable for his lack of action on his own behalf. She’s either a master of emotional boundaries or she’s gaslighting him.

I vacillate between admiration, compassion, and suspicion for Sandra, but grow to like her in spite of myself. She carries herself with dignity, emotion often evident on her face, though I’m never quite sure what it is. It looks like love in the beginning when she assures her son he can’t hurt her by telling the truth. Her poise falters later when she’s less certain what he will say. I think that’s when I like her the most.

In between, I notice her confidence in her own point of view, as if her mind’s eye is like a camera that doesn’t lie. There are moments in court when she won’t relinquish control of the narrative, and I marvel at her strong voice. Asking permission to speak English instead of French when expressing more complex emotional material, for me, adds credibility. Still, it’s hard to tell if her motivation is to tell the truth, or to convince others of her version of it. That unsettles me.

You Have to Decide

But life is like that, isn’t it? We make meaning with incomplete information. Without the whole truth, how can we do anything but project our own naive hopes or jaded fears into those gaps between facts? Marge, a court advocate assigned to Daniel, plays a pivotal role in a moment when he’s riddled with uncertainty. She gives him simple legal advice that seems wise for living life too. You have to decide.

What To Do with Pieces of Truth?

Daniel does arrive at a decision, but he first tugs on some threads of memories stirred by things he heard in court. I thought about my kids who would likely have similar insights had my divorce gone to court, but unlike Daniel, they have no desire to know more. Maybe it’s better that way, so I let those secrets rest. Each of us has our own pieces of the “whole truth” hidden to some degree to others or even ourselves. When do we need to put them together to really heal? When do we need to let them go?

Naming Is Containing

As a counselor, I’m accustomed to asking about suicidal and homicidal ideation, even though assessing risk is inexact at best. Among the facts presented in court, neither one is ever spoken of directly, though both are implied possibilities. Again, without giving anything away, here’s what settled the question for me. After I watched it all twice, some words of Dr. Daniel Siegel’s came to mind “if it’s mentionable it’s manageable.” Something clicked. The one that felt the most “unmentionable” seemed more likely to have happened. There is power in saying things aloud. I often say that to clients. The opposite is also true.

Am I Choosing Isolation or Grace?

The prompt for my self-love journal this morning was about giving ourselves grace and connecting with our common humanity. The contrasting state of isolation is described as one in which shame, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy can become magnified. That resonates with the tragedy of the film while shining light on how we might escape dark thoughts. Social support of course helps, but I think a state of isolation is more about forgetting we’re part of humanity, no better or worse than the rest. Grace is remembering that fact.

The film is equally frustrating and compelling in the way it raises more questions than answers. Still, I’m glad it unsettled me the way it did because the questions matter. The extra reflection was surprisingly inspiring in the end. I love the notion that endings can be transitions to living differently. May we all decide wisely what to do with our pieces of the truth, name what we need to contain, and give ourselves lots of grace. Our relationships will all be better for it.


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