Justine Triet on Anatomy of a Fall

This article appeared in the October 19 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Read and listen to all of our coverage NYFF61 here.

Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet, 2023)

Justine Triet’s fourth feature, Anatomy of a Fall, culminates a 10-year period in which the filmmaker has established herself as one of the most interesting and creative auteurs working today. Her body of work, which also includes Age of Panic (2013), In Bed with Victoria (2016), and Sibyl (2019), is a mosaic of prickly, powerful, and intensely complex female characters dealing with the stress of the contemporary world with sharpness, humor, and great intelligence.

In Anatomy of a Fall, Triet explores more somber territory than she’s covered before, while keeping her familiar comic edge. The mesmerizing drama is anchored around a remarkable performance by Sandra Hüller, as a successful writer accused of the murder of her husband (a less successful writer), who is found dead outside their Alpine chalet. Over the course of a winding trial, Triet tests the boundaries of the courtroom genre, as intimate details of the couple’s tumultuous life—and their autofictional creative processes—are examined, reexamined, and reframed; all the while, lawyers and the media search for precise answers in the inherently imprecise realms of love and art. Only the couple’s sight-impaired young son, played wonderfully by Milo Machado Graner, seems to recognize that if we can never truly trust our senses to give us an objective picture of the world, we have to turn instead to emotional truths.

Right before Anatomy of a Fall won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, I sat down with the writer-director to delve into her approach to genre, characters, and the slipperiness of reality. The film is currently in theaters in limited release.

This film could be described in many different ways: a portrait of a complicated woman, a family drama, a murder mystery, a courtroom drama. What was your original approach while writing the script? How did it spiral out in so many directions?

What was really at the heart of the film—and the main draw for me—was to talk about a couple: to show two people who live together and share their lives with a child, and the structure of the nuclear family. The trial and prosecution of the female character is a pretext for me to explore what is at stake between a couple through the genre of the courtroom film. This idea comes to the fore in the film when an audio clip is being played during the trial. It is the only whim I allowed myself, because there are no other flashbacks in the film—but I specifically wanted to have this moment for the spectator to use as the single, available image of the life of the couple. Since the film is built like a puzzle, with a lot of missing pieces, this one document can be used to project our own perceptions and understandings onto the couple.

Can you talk about how you worked with Sandra Hüller in developing the role, which I believe you had written explicitly for her? And why did you decide to have her speak in English in the film?

I really thought about and wrote the film for Sandra, and it would not have worked if she had not accepted the role. I wanted the character to be a foreigner, and I wanted to play with the use of language at the trial and also in the spectator’s mind. I wanted her to be judged like a foreigner, with a language issue—writing in English, being German, but living in France with her partner.

I had already had a wonderful experience working with Sandra on Sibyl, but then I started to bother her, telling her I had seen her in Alice Winocour’s Proxima (2019), and that she was great in it, but her French wasn’t good enough, so she would have to work on this. The problem is that I had no idea how much of a workaholic she is, and how seriously she would take this challenge! She worked very intensely for three and a half months to learn French.

The shifting way we feel about Sandra is, for me, the heart of the film. It would be easy to portray her as a rather unpleasant person, but her character here is complex, talented, and seemingly uncompromising. 

The only thing Sandra asked me about the script was if the character was guilty or innocent. I told her that I did not know, but that I wanted her to act as if she was innocent. It was our first concrete exchange about the film, and she was annoyed by my response. That was a tricky situation because it was just two days before the shoot, and she expected to know something about her character that I did not know myself. She has this fascinating way of being extremely pragmatic. Probably because she works in theater more than film, she does not have this attitude that I see with other actors, where they are very aware of the lights, and everything unfolds on their face. Sandra is very physical; she integrates her body into any situation. She uses her body in a very different way in Jonathan Glazer’s filmThe Zone of Interest, for example.

In a script, you always have some lines that are a bit clumsy or awkward. But with Sandra, she can never do it in an artificial way. She rejects it or tells me she does not understand it, and then she transforms and interprets it to make it her own. I had a tendency to push her into crying in several scenes, which she resisted—she did not agree that her character should manipulate others with tears. I also remember a moving moment, for instance, when she first met Milo Machado Graner. They sat next to each other, and she did not say anything, but a minute later they were mother and child. It was nearly miraculous, since they did not even speak the same language. Fifty percent of the work that goes into directing children comes from the other actors.

All the secondary characters are also written as fully developed, fleshed-out people. We want to know their personal stories, we want to see them interact with Sandra—they fully exist. 

This was an important part of my previous films as well. At a very early stage, we started thinking about characters who were not leads, since they are so often neglected. In many trial films, these characters are often associated with a function—the judge, the lawyer, the policeman—and the actors tend to overact, because they are inclined to stick to this image that corresponds to the function in a very solemn way. That is what I wanted to avoid. I tried hard to develop them and be interested in them as characters.

I invest a lot in the small roles. For instance, the president of the tribunal is played by Anne Rotger, a theater actress who has rarely ever been on screen. I have attended many trials in real life, and for the courtroom scenes, I wanted something very casual and natural, which Anne Rotger could provide. I find it interesting to mix professional actors with nonprofessionals—people who come from different backgrounds and bring something new to the dynamic. Wajdi Mouawad, who plays the trial psychiatrist, is a great stage director, and it was rather intimidating for me to direct him, but he also offered something very different

I had the luxury of having a very long casting process, so I could really take time to meet with many people. I was very lucky to have Cynthia Arra as the casting director; she also helped direct the actors when I was too busy on set. She is extremely careful about all the details, since these are not always obvious for an actor who is only going to be on set for a couple of days but has to incorporate everything that is going on into their performance.

You said you went to a lot of courtroom trials. Was it important for you to ensure that that aspect of the film would be close to reality? There is a great scene in which the attorneys are reading from Sandra’s book during the trial. Viewers might wonder if that commonly happens in French courtrooms—since the French are well-versed in literature, they must read books even in court!

When I was a young art-school student, my first connection to cinema was through documentary filmmaking—especially the works of Frederick Wiseman—and it was more exciting for us as students to try and capture reality than to imagine fictions. I had this interest already in courts and trials, so I would just go, sit there, and watch. So I already had a good background, but I did not know everything. When working on this script, I decided to do more research. I worked a lot with this renowned lawyer, Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse, who loves cinema, and who became a reference for us. We went through all the aspects of the script with him.

Regarding literature, it is funny because we wrote this specific scene and thought we could take the liberty of having a page of literature being read in court. After we had written it, I heard on the radio that during the trial of the French writer Édouard Louis, the attorney used one of his novels as an argument against him. I thought that was crazy—that something that we used in the film was happening in real life; that literature could be used during a trial. That happens all the time. You write something, and then it comes true.

Florence Almozini is the senior director of programming at Film at Lincoln Center.

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