Awards Season Catchup Double Feature: ANATOMY OF A FALL and AMERICAN FICTION
There’s a specialized little genre of music I love – modern funk bands doing covers of classic hip hop songs. It’s just a best of both worlds kind of situation, combining my two favorite types of music, and bringing things full circle in a way. So much of hip hop comes from curating and collaging the best parts of old funk songs, and now we’ve got new funk bands curating the best hip hop songs and filtering the sound through their instruments. Many of them also have a working knowledge of the sampled works, covering them as well or mixing them with a song that sampled them. That happens on the two albums of Wu-Tang Clan covers by El Michels Affair, as well as Brownout’s Public Enemy tribute Fear of a Brown Planet. I also have this record called Expansions by the German group Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band where they cover Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” but also “Space,” Galt MacDermot’s song famously sampled in “Woo Ha” by Busta Rhymes. And they play them with steel drums! So I immediately recognized their cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” when it started playing at the beginning of the Palme d’or winning French legal drama ANATOMY OF A FALL (Anatomie d’une chute), and I was surprised. I was even more surprised when it turned out to be an important part of the story, played about as much as “Fight the Power” is in DO THE RIGHT THING. Wouldn’t have guessed that in a million years, even with hints. I hope they play it every time it’s up for anything at the Oscars or any of those.
In the movie, the song is blasting from the attic of a chalet on a snowy hill near Grenoble, France. Acclaimed German author Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller, TONI ERDMANN, THE ZONE OF INTEREST) is being interviewed by a grad student (Camille Rutherford, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR) downstairs. Her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), a less successful writer working as a teacher is upstairs working on renovations and playing the music so loud they have to stop. Their 11 year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) goes for a walk to get away from the noise, and when he gets back his dad is dead in a puddle of blood, apparently having fallen from the attic window while Sandra is napping. (“P.I.M.P.” is still blasting on a loop.)
Speaking of falls, it now falls upon me to justify having writing so much about that song in this review, and here’s how I’m going to do it: ANATOMY OF A FALL is like Bacao’s “P.I.M.P.” in the sense that it’s basically a court room drama, but done in a different style, making it feel like something else even while taking advantage of some of the basic things that are broadly appealing about the genre. I’m not a 50 Cent fan at all and don’t find myself sitting down and listening to his original version, but I hear the Bacao version and I think “Yeah, actually that is a good song. It’s catchy.” And that’s kind of how I feel about court room dramas by way of ANATOMY OF A FALL.
It is a mystery, because we really don’t know what happened. She summons Vincent (Swann Arlaud, THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC), an old friend who became a lawyer, in case she needs a legal defense, and it turns out she does. Once the police find a recording Samuel made of a big argument they got into the day before she is indicted for murder. She doesn’t think Samuel would’ve committed suicide, but an accidental fall seems more far fetched to Vincent. “No one will believe it. I don’t believe it.” So she goes along. Suicide it is. Then when she starts remembering things that support that theory Vincent seems skeptical, like it’s awfully convenient.
There is suspense, and there are further reveals to make us question if this lady we’ve been following is lying to us. But it’s really not a movie about surprises and perfect solutions. It’s more about unpeeling the onion layers of this now vanquished relationship, how a German woman fell in love in London and ended up unhappy in France, the guilt Samuel had about the accident that blinded their son, the jealousy he had over her affair with a woman, even though she says he originally gave it his blessing. We see how these complicated, messy things that make sense to her in her personal life become scandalous when turned into headlines or arguments but the prosecutor (Antoine Reinarts, Irma Vep mini-series), a sorely hatable dickbag who looks like Rob Corddry in a robe. (Vincent looks like Martin Short.) Things she should never have to explain to anyone, but she has to do it in a big room full of strangers, in her third language.
It’s also about her son, the way both she and the judge (Cécile Brunet-Ludet) worry about him being in court and hearing certain things about his parents, and the prosecutor worries about her influencing what he tells the court. Since they still let her out on bail, a woman named Marge (Jehnny Beth, PARIS, 13TH DISTRICT) is appointed to stay with them and “protect his testimony.” That’s also a challenge for Marge, because she’s nice to the kid, so he starts to trust her and ask her questions you’d ask a friend but that a person in her role shouldn’t answer.
And most of all it’s about these moments that feel very authentic, that you don’t have time for in a TV legal drama or whatever. The incredibly realistic mourning when Daniel just wants to stay in bed and cry. The awkwardness of welcoming Vincent into her home under these circumstances and having to ask him what she’s supposed to do, exactly – give him a tour? Yeah, so she gives him a tour. And Vincent seems kind of jammed between some ancient unfulfilled crush and now seeming to wonder if he’s defending a murderer. Or if not, if he’s gonna blow it, since he’s really not as experienced as she seemed to assume.
ANATOMY OF A FALL is directed by Justine Triet (SIBYL), who co-wrote it with Arthur Harari (ONODA: 10,000 NIGHTS IN THE JUNGLE). I watched it specifically because it’s been talked up as one of the possible best picture nominees. Do I understand why people would single it out as one of the most important, or best, or their favorite of 2023? No, not really. But I enjoyed the experience, so I’m glad their acclaim pushed me into it.
AMERICAN FICTION has little in common with ANATOMY OF A FALL except that I watched it on the same day, for the same reason, and it’s also about a famous writer getting into some trouble. It stars Jeffrey Wright (EYE SEE YOU) as Thelonious Ellison, known to friends and family as “Monk.” He’s a novelist with several respected books to his name, but his latest has been rejected by all the major publishers who say it’s very good but they’re looking for something “more Black.” Frustrated by the huge mainstream success of a book he considers pandering called We’s Lives In Da Ghetto by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae, BARBIE), he writes a parody ghetto novel called My Pafology and sends it out under a pseudonym. He assumes the white publishing industry people will understand that it’s a big fuck you, but instead they think it’s great and want to publish it. He needs money bad, so he takes it, pretending to be reclusive fugitive Stagg R. Leigh, and it becomes by far his biggest success.
There are many broadly performed but often funny jokes about well-meaning, completely clueless white people talking about the carceral state or the importance of listening to Black voices (as a reason to not listen to Monk). But honestly there’s not that much of this HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE type satire side of the movie that we didn’t see in the trailer. Thankfully there’s much more to the movie, and Wright doesn’t have to spend much time doing a stereotype and trusting that white people aren’t enjoying it in the wrong way. It’s mostly a family drama about going back home to Boston, reconnecting with his siblings Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross, CANDY CANE LANE) and Cliff (Sterling K. Brown, HOTEL ARTEMIS, THE PREDATOR, THE RHYTHM SECTION), who are closer to each other than to him, and dealing with their mom Agnes (Leslie Uggams, POOR PRETTY EDDIE) losing the ability to live on her own because of Alzheimer’s. (For whatever it’s worth, there were aspects that reminded me more of what that was like with my parents than any other movie, but it didn’t wreck me like movies about this sometimes do.)
There are no steel drum hip hop covers, but music plays a part in this one too. The mellow jazz soundtrack by Laura Karpman (THE TOURNAMENT, THE MARVELS) is a good fit for Monk’s upper class, sweater-wearing college professor vibes. Monk is an academic named after you know who, his siblings are both doctors, his family owns a beach house and still employs a maid, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor, BUSHWICK), who calls him “Mr. Monk.” Monk correctly points out that he shouldn’t be required to or considered qualified to write about the problems of the ghetto just because he’s Black. And the movie proceeds to show the family dealing with other types of problems.
I think some of them are handled in a fairly simplistic, sitcom sort of way. A very dramatic conflict about considering Louise family but no longer having a reason to employ her conveniently solves itself before they have to address it at all. And Monk hiding his alter ego and source of income from his girlfriend Coraline (Erika Alexander, 54, FULL FRONTAL) works thematically, but it also feels like a contrivance that he’s kept all this totally secret, especially when he finds out she read and liked the book. Seems like a good time to cop to it.
But the movie still works because these are very good performances, and though we’ve seen Wright in more actorly leads like BASQUIAT and HOLD THE DARK (where he was also a writer, come to think of it), I haven’t seen him do many like this – a relatable person, witty, not crazy. Brown is also very entertaining and funny, kinda lovable even while being the irresponsible cokehead brother. Uggams also gets some laughs when not convincingly depicting early dementia symptoms. I also liked Monk’s friendship with his agent Arthur (John Ortiz, ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM), and Adam Brody (COP OUT) has a good douchebag roleas a stylishly dressed producer of Oscar bait movies. Don’t get excited about Keith David’s name on the opening credits, he’s not in it much, but he is in it.
Turns out this is based on a book, and it sounds like a hard one to translate. It uses excerpts of his shitty novel and other books as a parallel narrative. In the movie they just visualize one of his scenes while he’s writing it, and a few other gimmicks. It’s hard to be meta about movies in a movie about books. I’ve read that the book’s My Pafology is partly a parody of the novel Push by Sapphire, and there’s actually a clip of PRECIOUS in a montage of the type of movies he’s saying may be legitimate but should not constitute the entirety of Black life in movies. I give AMERICAN FICTION credit for at least naming names, something that, for example, BAMBOOZLED didn’t do. They show Ricky getting shot in BOYZ N THE HOOD and Pookie smoking crack in NEW JACK CITY, for example. Those are from a whole different era, though.
I guess tomorrow morning we’ll find out if this really gets nominated for best picture or adapted screenplay, as some are predicting. I actually think it’s the kind of movie that can be done a disservice by being nominated for Oscars. It’s funny and likable and has some interesting things to say, but if you put expectations on it to be great or important I don’t think it really lives up to that. On the other hand, it was this acclaim that got me to see it, when I didn’t think the trailer looked great. (I should note that I first saw it under really funny circumstances – it played before KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, the audience was largely made up of white elderly people on a field trip from a retirement home, and I’m positive they laughed four times harder than any other crowd that ever saw that trailer. I have no idea why. But it was like the funniest shit they had ever experienced. Someone could’ve died.)
I liked it less than them, but it’s a good start for first time director Cord Jefferson, who started as a journalist for Gawker, then a writer for TV shows including The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Master of None, The Good Place, Succession, Watchmen, and Station Eleven. We’ll see what he does next.