Justine Triet on Palme d'Or winner Anatomy of a Fall
This year Justine Triet became only the third female director to win the Palme d'Or for her fantastic fourth film Anatomy of a Fall. She talks to us about upending the staid courtroom drama and her obsession with her extraordinary star, Sandra Hüller
I’m in bed with the director of In Bed with Victoria. Well, virtually. French filmmaker Justine Triet is in a hotel room lying flat, her head propped up on a mountain of pillows, as she discusses her extraordinary fourth feature Anatomy of a Fall over Zoom. The film centres on Sandra, played by German actor Sandra Hüller, who’s a writer who’s been accused of the murder of her husband, Samuel (also a writer, but less successful). His body is found bloody and broken on the snowy ground below the attic window of their Alpine chalet. Did he fall, jump or was he pushed? The only possible witness to the crime is Sandra and Samuel’s son Daniel, who’s blind.
Triet’s three earlier films – Age of Panic (2013), the aforementioned In Bed with Victoria (2016) and Sibyl (2019) – are all very good, each spiky, spry and smart, and centred on complex female characters, but Anatomy of a Fall is a huge leap forward in her filmmaking. It's being described as a courtroom thriller but it’s a world away from a John Grisham potboiler. It has some of the genre's ingredients – a person dies under suspicious circumstances, we have a suspect who seems to be holding back information, there’s a sanctimonious prosecutor – but Triet undercuts expectations at every opportunity.
“When you make one of these procedural movies you go into a big big box,” says Treit. “Every month there are so many movies, so many series of this genre, so to stand out you have to be very very personal.” When Triet started to write Anatomy of a Fall with co-writer Arthur Harari, they were determined to do things differently. “We didn’t use any additional dramatic score [all the music is diegetic, so playing within the reality of the film], we didn’t want to have the typical suspense of a Hollywood movie.”
One way Triet’s film stands apart from Hollywood is the courtroom scenes. Similarly to last year’s Saint Omer, Anatomy of the Fall shows that they do things quite differently in France, where the courtroom feels closer to theatre than a trial. “I don’t know how it is in Scotland, but in the US, the judge gives everyone permission to speak, but in France, it depends on the judge," explains Triet. "So sometimes it’s more like the American system but more often our courts are more anarchic.” The trial in Anatomy of a Fall is towards the chaotic end of this spectrum, with everyone – be they defendant, lawyer or witness – liable to go off on poetic monologues as much as they are to answer questions directly.
This proves particularly tricky for Sandra. Her mother tongue is German and she has excellent English, but her French is not so hot. Despite this, she’s expected to give her testimony in French, although she often has to slip into English to stop herself from being misunderstood. “She has to learn French to be a ‘good person’ in the courtroom, but when she gets caught up with the emotions in the court she switches to English,” says Triet. Language is clearly central to the film. “For Sandra, French is the mask. It’s a filter between her and reality. She has many faces, and French is just one of them, but when she goes back to English, that's when it slips.”
Triet had Hüller in mind from the start. Hüller had a small but scene-stealing role in Sibyl as an exacerbated film director, and Triet evidently had a great time directing her. “I was totally obsessed with [Hüller]," recalls Triet. "All the team on Sibyl were. It’s very rare when an actor comes on to a set for a few days and gives so much. And when me and my editor were watching the rushes, I said I have to work with her again.” It’s hard to think of the film working with another actor, which Triet was well aware of, and this had her worried. “I was very afraid Sandra wouldn’t want to do the role, so I resorted to calling the character Sandra to force the issue," she laughs. "To say to her, ‘OK, you have to do this now.’ It’s ridiculous but sometimes you have to try everything.”
Hüller is matched every step of the way by young Milo Machado Graner, who’s heartbreaking as Daniel, whose testimony may make or break his mother’s case. Unbelievably, Triet was initially resistant to casting Graner. “The first time I saw him I said ‘No, he doesn’t look right. He doesn’t look enough like Sandra.’” Co-writer Harari convinced her that this boy was special by having her ignore the image and simply listen only to his self-tape. “Arthur was right, he had such an interesting voice, an interesting way of speaking. So we saw him just for the voice.” During Graner’s call-back, Triet wasn’t feeling the best, but this young performer soon perked her up. “When we saw him I was so exhausted but when Milo performed… I was like wow. We filmed the casting and I asked to have it downloaded onto my phone because I couldn’t stop watching it; it was like that video with the kid from the ET casting.”
Anatomy of a Fall is released 8 Nov by Picturehouse