DRAMA; 2hr 30min (French with subtitles, English)
STARRING: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Samuel Theis
Head games: Hüller
When teacher and would-be author Samuel Maleski (Theis) is discovered by his 11-year-old son Daniel (Machado Graner) in the snow outside their French Alps chalet, it seems he has fallen to his death — seems being the operative word. Samuel’s head wound is inconsistent with the position in which his body ended up, suggesting to authorities a prior collision or blow. (The technicalities of blood spatter are also an issue, none of which is pretty.)
Since only Samuel’s German writer wife, Sandra Voyter (Hüller), was present at the time, she immediately falls under suspicion — by us, as well, given the toxic whiff of marital tension in director Justine Triet’s opening scene. To her lawyer friend Vincent Renzi (Arlaud), Sandra is adamant that she isn’t Samuel’s killer, which to Vincent is irrelevant since suicide will be his only possible defence at trial. And so the police probe pushes on, zeroing in on what Daniel — who is vision-impaired following an early-childhood accident — may have heard transpire between his parents on the fatal day before he left the chalet for a walk with his dog.
Triet’s Palme d’Or–winning treatment of the screenplay she co-wrote with her partner Arthur Harari is controlled and low key, pared of the high drama that would make an obvious entry point. One year later, when Sandra’s trial is under way, its tension is heightened, with the central mystery of what happened to Samuel still unresolved.
Layer by layer, forensic legal drilling slices through the contradictions of Sandra and Samuel’s unhappy marriage, raising yet more questions about its balance of power and the toll that has taken on Daniel. From first scene to last, the nerve centre of every interaction is an impenetrable performance from Hüller that pulses like a wound. Even when Sandra is nakedly distraught, it is impossible to determine who she really is. For if, as she herself says, “Sometimes a couple is a kind of chaos,” so too are the myriad possibilities that shadow her ambiguous behaviour.