Anatomy of a Fall – The true-crime genre gets a nuanced feminist update

“I see the court as a place where our lives are fictionalized, where a story, a narrative, is put on our life,” says French writer-director Justine Triet about Anatomy of a Fall, which she co-wrote with her partner Arthur Harari, eschewing the traditional courtroom drama to explore familial relationships when an ambitious, sexually self-assured novelist is put on trial for the suspicious death of her husband Samuel at their home in the French Alps.

Anatomy of a Fall has given Triet an experience unlike any other she’s had over her 15-year career — one that includes winning the Palme d’Or for Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival, and Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture (Foreign) and Best Screenplay.

Arthur Harari and Justine Triet won the Palme d’Or for Best Film

The genesis of Anatomy of a Fall stems from her longstanding desire to create another trial film since her 2016 production, In Bed with Victoria.

“I wanted to address the legal question in all its details, to delve into issues of relationships and cohabitation. It was also a pretext to dissect every aspect of their lives.”

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, Sandra, (Sandra Hüller)  a German writer, lives with her husband Samuel and their visually-impaired son Daniel in a remote mountain chalet in the French Alps. When Samuel falls to his death in mysterious circumstances, the investigation cannot determine whether it’s suicide or foul play. Sandra is ultimately arrested for murder and the trial puts their tumultuous relationship and her ambiguous personality under the microscope. As her young son takes to the stand, doubt starts creeping in between them.

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 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.

A Conversation with writer-director Justine Triet

This is the first time you have tackled a dramatic subject head-on. What attracted you to this subject?

My previous films were already about the male-female relationship and I had already made a film about a trial, but I told myself that if I were to make one again, I would want us to spend a lot of time on the smallest details of the trial. Then, as soon as I got into the genre and knew that the film would be quite “strong”, as soon as I had the idea of dissecting this couple in a trial, I said to myself and Arthur Harari, with whom I wrote the script, that it wouldn’t be a half-comedy. I knew in any case that if I made a film about a trial, it would not be a comedy, and this had been a wish for a long time.

Within the couple, there was above all a desire to explore the woman as a mother, as a companion, etc..

I’ve always done that, but this time even more so. I wanted to show a woman who is confident in her way of life, to be on an equal footing with the person with whom she lives and perhaps even to take up more space. I also question the couple; how do you live together? Give each other things while being equal. Tell each other the truth without being violent. It’s complicated in reality and we see this in the film because when we tell the truth to each other, it’s extremely violent and it’s also love. How do you live when you have children? And when you create, it’s even more complicated, with this side of vampirisation of the other. All this was at the origin of the project: to tell the story of a character who assumes a form of freedom in her bisexuality, in her way of considering things, and also a form of violence in her way of assuming this because she knows that if she doesn’t take up this space, no one will give it to her. It’s quite feminist, but when I look around me, women who manage to do what they want in their jobs and who have children and a family are often women who impose their choices.

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 perceptions and understandings onto the couple.

You worked with Sandra Hüller in developing the role.

I 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. 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.

In a script, you always have some lines that are a bit clumsy or awkward. But with Sandra, she can never do it artificially. 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.

Was it important for you to ensure that that aspect of the film would be close to reality?

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 fiction. 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.

Why this attraction to the judicial topic?

There is something I find wonderful and at the same time distressing about the space of the court and justice, and that is the idea that our lives are being told for us and that the chaos of people’s lives is being reorganised to tell it. And they don’t tell the truth: it’s fiction, a narrative, like a magnifying mirror, a magnifying glass that looks at the smallest details of our lives, giving meaning to the most insignificant. It’s this whole aspect of dissecting the smallest piece of people’s existence to explain a criminal act or other that I find fascinating. It is often also the place that reflects society, its deepest thinking, the way we can see men and women, and the way we can reduce them to an image. In this case, Sandra, my main character, is quite badly treated by the public prosecutor concerning her life and the way she lives her life.

The structure of the film is very much in the true-crime genre.

I read these kinds of true-crime stories on an almost daily basis and watch, again almost daily, these trial movies and series. So they were an inspiration. I’d always thought that one day I’d do a film with a trial at the heart of the plot, at the heart of the story. But often, the impression that I got as a viewer of these shows and films, or when I would read or watch them, is that the stories are too easy, too obvious. The resolution is always too obvious. I don’t want to give any spoilers for the film, but the resolution here is not obvious. My intention in making this film is to have something quite complex and, even by the end of the film, unclear. Together with my co-writer [Arthur Harari] we worked on that aspect, to constantly create questions around the case and the trial. You can see it as a whodunit, but I think it’s mainly a film about a couple’s relationship. What was interesting for me was to use this pretext of the murder trial to dissect the relationship of a couple who have a child together but do not have a common language. For me that was the center of the story, the trial was a side story.

The question of reality vs. fiction and how we turn the facts of the real world into narrative stories seem to be core themes of the film

I see the court as a place where our lives are fictionalized, where a story, a narrative, is put on our life. Everybody there is telling a story, everybody’s creating a narrative, and everything is very far from the truth. Even Sandra and her defense lawyer distance themselves from the truth; they distort reality to be able to defend her — exactly what the prosecutor does on the other side to try and convict her. The state becomes very judgmental about her way of living. Doing the research for the film, I found it very interesting that even nowadays, in 2023, where, at least in France or in other Western countries, women are supposed to have equal status to men, life choices, like choosing a career, or being open sexually, are judged negatively. Sandra’s bisexuality is used against her in the case. I wanted to show how these trials are a kind of nightmare for people because their own life is taken away from them, everybody creates a fiction and is not trying to reach the truth. Myself, being obsessed with the truth and with trying to seek the truth through stories, I found that very interesting.

One of the core plot elements in the story involves an audio recording of a fight the couple has. The recording becomes very important in the trial. Now a recording like that is supposed to be a form of absolute proof, of clear facts. But even this sound recording is used by the prosecutor out of context. It becomes just material to fictionalize, and then attack, Sandra. Everybody is completely separated from the truth of what happened and is creating different fictions around her.

How did you work on the genre film level?

From the start, I had the narrative fabric, the plot. I knew that it would be the trial of a woman accused of murder and that we would never know the truth. I find it much more interesting that the truth is hunted down at the trial but that we will never get it. The big job was done very formally. Because we are so saturated with films and documentaries about “crime stories”, we had to find a form of writing and how to get into it. The idea of the sound archive came up very quickly. When we live together today, there are a lot of recordings, often videos, but I found it more interesting to remove this and be on sound archives. It also allowed me to marry the perception of the couple’s visually impaired child in the film. It gives a coherence between this child who doesn’t know and the fact that someone is not there because there is only one flashback in the film, just a vision, and we try to fill everything else with hypotheses. But this sound piece completely distorts the situation of this couple because it’s a very particular moment of intense emotions. So the idea was to enter a film that would be very complicated to understand and to be enlightened progressively, touch by touch, on what we didn’t understand, notably the first very confusing scene that will be dissected later at the trial. I also wanted us to have the feeling that we were gradually discovering Sandra’s main character at the same time as she escapes us, that we never get to know exactly who she is. The balance of her possible guilt and innocence hangs by a thread and that was a real challenge and a real piece of work in the script.

What about the mountain setting? And your main staging intentions?

The obsession with falling, up and down all the time, trying to understand how this body fell. I’ve been obsessed for ten years with the credits of Mad Men, I think it’s almost a film in itself, with this man who keeps falling, who never crashes. The direction is very stylised because making a film about a trial means inserting yourself into an iconography, into a rather important history of cinema. More broadly, to take the opposite view of Sybil, I wanted to make a film that was the least clean, the least polished, and the least held together as possible.