Justine Triet interview Anatomy of a Fall

Justine Triet on her film Anatomy of a Fall, a courtroom drama, thriller & treatise on marriage

The French director told us about creating a strong but flawed female protagonist, who isn’t a “good victim” in the eyes of the court, for her Palme d’Or-winning film.

In Anatomy of a Fall, a famous writer, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), is accused of murdering her husband. Their son discovers his body in the snow outside their cottage — his head crushed, blood staining the packed white ice. Though there’s very little hard evidence, the events are suspicious enough for a case to be mounted against Sandra. She has to go on trial to defend her innocence and her very way of life.

Anatomy of a Fall won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival earlier this year. From director Justine Triet (Sibyl), the movie investigates the challenges of marriage. Told in a courtroom and also through fragmented sequences, Sandra’s forceful nature and influence, assets in her work and life, become liabilities. Triet, discussing the film over Zoom, wanted to show how a woman who “has a strong sense of self and takes up a lot of space in her relationship, when faced with little facts against her, sees as (the court) builds a case against the way she lives.” 

The role of Sandra was written with the German actress Sandra Hüller in mind. A rising star since 2006, when she won the Berlin Film Festival‘s Silver Bear for best actress for her role in Requiem, she became an arthouse darling a decade later for her raucously funny and vulnerable role in Toni Erdmann. Hüller’s screen presence always feels androgynous, as she bends gendered expectations of power and authority. Her best roles emphasize her charisma, harshness and willingness to appear monstrous and even foolish.

As Sandra, she’s a woman of infinite charm. When she first appears onscreen, her husband appears solely as a needle-drop, an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” that echoes through their small home, interrupting an interview and flirtation Sandra has struck up with a literary student. In that first moment, she’s drinking wine. She’s relaxed as she teases her interviewer, redirecting and controlling the proceedings. Despite the booming music, she seems like a woman entirely in control, a force to be reckoned with. 

For many people, explains Triet, a woman like Sandra is viewed as “not normal.” In the courtroom, her sexuality and her fame position Sandra as someone viewed with suspicion. Sandra’s behaviour in the courtroom, which comes across as frustrated and even hostile, only exasperates her failure to embody expectations. “I wanted to show how everything Sandra says is deformed and twisted,” says Triet. We watched evidence is put forth without emotion and context. A marriage is dissected without an ounce of humanity, without accounting for the complexity of romantic and familial entanglements. “We’re constantly being told one reality, but we have a character who has to fight to say that the justice system is a bit left of reality,” says Triet. 

In many ways, Sandra is not a good victim. She doesn’t behave the way she ought to, in life or in the court, at least under a larger social umbrella. “I find the question of what makes a ‘good victim’ very interesting. Why would a powerful woman be so threatening to society and to men?” asks Triet, who’s also quick to point out that Sandra isn’t perfect. “We can’t paint her as an angel either, she’s very complex.” Sandra’s unknowability, her paradoxical nature, symbolizes the idea that the truth of any relationship can be summed up easily on paper. The nature of love, rather than absolute, exists in a kind of liminal space between truth and fiction. 

Communication becomes an integral theme within the movie, and Triet uses language as one way to emphasize a sense of discord in understanding each other. “Language is like a character in the film. The characters speak different languages, which helps to bring to light how difficult it is to be understood,” says Triet. The use of French, English and German, which sometimes can be seen as utopic, an expression of overcoming fundamental differences to be understood, becomes “a kind of hell” for the characters in the film. It helps blunt edges that might otherwise be softened with inuendos or double-speak. It forces to the light elements that might otherwise be held secret, concealed. 

Many of Triet’s films examine different types of relationships; whether romantic, familial or in the workplace. “The idea of people living together obsesses me,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by very simple ideas. It’s not about extraordinary subjects but finding a way to bring us to a place where they can be. That’s why I really like genre films,” Triet says. “It’s like what Cronenberg says about The Fly. If we look at it plainly, it’s about someone who will die and his lover who has to watch him die. But, if we look at it through genre, all of a sudden it becomes a way for the audience to be able to bear the unbearable. If my film was just people at home and their screaming matches, people would be much less interested in watching it.”

Anatomy of a Fall is a courtroom drama with thriller elements underpinning it. Though its lack of resolution pushes it into the realm of arthouse, the film was relatively successful at the French box office — an especially significant marker, considering the controversy that followed her speech at Cannes, where she condemned the French government’s suppression of protests and also its attack on the cultural realm. She said, “the commercialization of culture this neoliberal government supports is in the process of breaking France’s cultural exception” at the time.

She received pushback directly from Macron’s government, and those who felt she was snapping back at the ones who fund her projects pointed out that many of her films have earned back their money. Many even suspected her speech would backfire, but Anatomy of a Fall is thus far one of the most commercially successful Palme d’Or winners in recent memory. ■

Anatomy of a Fall (directed by Justine Triet)

Anatomy of a Fall opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct 27.

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.