As her Palme d’Or-winning thriller hits UK cinemas, Justine Triet talks about relationships, sexism, and flipping the courtroom drama on its head
In Justine Triet’s incisive, Palme d’Or-winning Anatomy of a Fall, a German novelist, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), takes to the stands when accused of murdering her husband in the Alps. In court, Sandra responds to questions in French, not her native tongue, but when the prosecutor’s questions prove too straining, she requests to switch to English and use an interpreter.
Funnily enough, on the occasion of meeting Triet in the Londoner Hotel in Leicester Square, I notice that the 45-year-old French director has opted to speak French for our interview, even though she’s proficient in English. Does this feel like a court case? “No,” Triet exclaims directly in English, not using the interpreter next to her. “I can speak English sometimes. But I’m not as free in English than in French. Of course, I’m not on trial.” With a laugh, she adds, “I hope.”
Language, then, plays a crucial part in Anatomy of a Fall, a 152-minute legal thriller in which specific sentences, sometimes from Sandra’s own books, and whether she chooses to respond in French or English, play a part in deciding whether she shoved her husband Samuel (Samuel Maleski) off a balcony. Ostensibly, the judge is meant to decide if Samuel was pushed or if he fell; instead, Sandra finds herself switching languages in order to debate existential matters regarding her personal life.
“Love and couples are so difficult to reduce in words,” says Triet. “They’re ineffable things. On trial is this woman, and people are saying, ‘You are this.’ She says, ‘No, I’m not just this.’ All the time, she is justifying herself. The main thing is that she’s disposed of her narrative.” Triet laughs. “She has to get it back, and say, ‘I’m a real person. I’m not just a free woman.’ It’s complicated. Humans are complicated.”
One tactic from the prosecutor is to bring up Sandra’s bisexuality and past infidelity. Other unspoken implications are at play, too. “Homophobia is, unfortunately, everywhere,” says Triet. “I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all of the trial to have this homophobic aspect. But the fact that she’s free in her sexuality is turned against her, and it involves homophobia. Whatever it is, they’re going to turn it against her.” Triet thus disagrees with my comment that the film examines misogyny. “I don’t think that’s the main thing. But she’s judged more harshly because she’s a woman in court. The fact that she’s a successful writer – and she’s free and in control of her life – goes against her in that situation.”
Since winning the top prize at Cannes in May, Anatomy of a Fall has been a movie judged by audiences – basically juries – around the world. The knotty, mostly French-language whodunit was acquired in the US by Neon, who took Parasite to unexpected Oscars glory, and trade publications consider it a dead cert for a Best Picture nomination. Meanwhile, in France, it’s been a box office success, and became the subject of controversy when The Taste of Things was instead selected as the country’s Oscar submission. Some believe that Triet was punished for speaking out against Macron’s government in her Palme d’Or acceptance speech; on Instagram, Triet shared a story declaring The Taste of Things to be “chiants” (boring).
Still, Triet’s fourth feature, if anything, has risen in reputation and post-screening discussions, not least because it centres upon an unanswered question of whether Sandra is guilty. What viewers know is that, in the opening moments, Sandra is being interviewed by a journalist at the chalet she shares with Samuel (Samuel Maleski), the latter aggressively blasting a calypso instrumental of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. from another room. Later, the couple’s son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), goes out for a walk and returns to discover his father’s dead body in the snow. Was it suicide? Was he shoved off a balcony in a fight? And, if so, was a 2003 earworm by 50 Cent the final, annoyingly catchy straw?
Sandra’s own claim to her lawyer, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), is that Samuel’s death must surely be an accident. When Vincent insists that the court would never believe that, Sandra alters her tact: she argues that Vincent took his own life, effectively meaning that she’s lying in her defence. In court, Triet also occasionally applies harsh zooms, the close-ups highlighting awkward body language. “It wasn’t to make her look more guilty,” says Triet. “It was more to do with rhythm, and to find the movement, and a way of filming a trial to not just be in this religious fixed way.”
It helps, too, that Hüller is adept with multi-layered facial expressions, both conveying the many facts that viewers have accumulated during the movie and also the unknowability of a human being. In other words, Hüller depicts Sandra as a verbose, semi-famous author who can perform for a court, but also the vulnerable, petrified woman underneath. “I spent a lot of time in courtrooms, just watching and observing,” says Triet. “I really asked for the actors to be grounded, and to not go off in some religious idea of a heightened idea of a courtroom.”
As with the 2019 drama Sibyl, which was about a female author who deals with actors, Anatomy of a Fall was co-written by Triet with her husband, Arthur Harari. It’s not gone unnoticed that Sandra and Samuel are cohabiting novelists who specialise in autofiction. Samuel, in fact, records his everyday conversations – a fierce argument is played in court – and expresses bitterness that his wife has amassed more success than he has.
Due to last-minute scheduling issues, though, my interview with a very apologetic Triet is far shorter than either of us had planned, and much of what I have written down in my notebook remains untouched. Has she spoken to France’s Oscars committee about the snub? Does it matter that two of its members, Olivier Assayas and Charles Gillibert, made Non-Fiction with Juliette Binoche, the star of The Taste of Things? And what about the million things I want to ask about writing with her husband? Like in the film itself, some questions have to remain unanswered.
Anatomy of a Fall is out in UK cinemas now.