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“Anatomy of a Fall,” the remarkable new film by the French director Justine Triet, begins with an interview. A woman arrives at a chalet in the French Alps to speak with Sandra Voyter (played by Sandra Hüller), a novelist who lives with her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), and their preteen son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). It’s winter, but the mood indoors is warm; Sandra is relaxed, charming, and slyly evasive. Then, suddenly, the interview ends, as Samuel begins to blast music from upstairs in an apparent act of aggression. Sandra shows the interviewer out, suggesting that they get together soon in Grenoble, but that meeting never takes place. Shortly after she leaves, Samuel is found dead in the snow outside the chalet, having fallen from the attic. Did he jump? Was he pushed? Sandra, at once stunned and curiously composed, is charged with his murder.
What ensues is a drama that takes place in the home, in the courtroom, and in the public eye. Sandra, who is German, is called on to defend herself in a language she doesn’t speak fluently; she and Samuel used English at home, and much of the film takes place in a blend of that language and French. But what, exactly, is Sandra being accused of? Murdering her husband, yes—but also, it seems, neglecting him for her work; flirting with other women; having ambition; being a foreigner, a mother, a writer, an unreadable, unrepentant woman. As the trial wears on, Triet shows us how the legal system’s insistence on clarity ends up distorting the complex, contradictory human picture. Sandra, too, is committed to the truth, the mottled kind that artists know. So is Triet.
“Anatomy of a Fall” premièred at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it won the Palme d’Or. When she took the stage to accept the award, Triet gave a passionate political speech in which she denounced the Macron government’s suppression of the mass protests, held throughout the winter and spring, of a highly unpopular change to the country’s retirement age. She also warned that the French “cultural exception”—essentially, state support for the arts—is under threat. We spoke by Zoom a few weeks ago, while she was in Paris and I was in New York. Our conversation, which took place in a blend of French and English, has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity.
Your film premièred at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. You’ve been speaking about it for the last five months. I’m wondering how your relationship to it has changed in that time. Is it the same film for you that you showed in May?
It’s an experience that I’ve never had before. I’ve never done so much promotion. I think that, for me, it often takes three or four years after making a film to understand it. And it’s true that, since I’ve been speaking about it a lot, there are moments where I make different connections, or people share certain interpretations that give me access to different parts of the film. It’s really a very special experience.
Are there specific interpretations that come to mind?
There were two funny things. The first is that there have been multiple women who have told me that they sent their ex-boyfriends to the movie and said, “You have to watch this to understand why I split with you.” I thought that was very interesting.
And the fight scene, you know, when I was writing it—I was not worried, but I was, like, O.K., this is the turning point in the movie, after this maybe people won’t love Sandra as much. And it’s the opposite. It was really surprising for me to see the way people felt close to her after that part. More so women, maybe. Women were, like, O.K., after that, I’m with her.
Just to give people some context, the fight scene that you’re referring to, the climax of the film, arrives in the last third of the movie. It’s a flashback sequence where we witness an argument that took place between Sandra and Samuel shortly before Samuel died. Samuel, who is a teacher, complains that he doesn’t have time to work on his own writing because he’s so busy taking care of Daniel, whom he homeschools. He accuses Sandra of not making space for him and his work, but Sandra refuses to apologize, or to agree to that interpretation of their relationship. And, to me, that seemed very unusual—that the woman in the couple would not try to accommodate the feelings of the man. She tells him that he’s responsible for the way he uses his time; it’s up to him to make changes, not her. Is that what people have responded to?
These kinds of questions are both philosophical and practical. The question of how we live with one another is also, in the end, a question about love, because in love nothing is worth more than candor, than honesty. I live with my partner, who makes films. I know that each of us has an ego. But I have to tell him the truth when I think something isn’t right, and he does, too. If he started to lie to me, I’d hate it. And I think that Sandra has so much respect for Samuel that she can’t lie to him.
So I think that she’s someone who has deep integrity in two respects. There’s the fact that she tells the truth, and the fact that she won’t renounce her ambition. And, yes, I think that Samuel plays the victim a bit, because he may be someone who’s sacrificed himself, but he’s also hidden himself, in a way, behind this position of the man who’s been mistreated.
But these people are still trying to speak to one another. For me, there’s still love there. The problem is that in each couple, there’s always a burden to carry, and here, it’s their son’s accident, which has thrown off the balance between them. And that disequilibrium, it’s true, basically benefits Sandra, even if—and this is the irony of the film—Samuel’s death finally allows him to take up the space that she wouldn’t give him before.
I think that the fundamental question of the film is the question of reciprocity in the couple. I think that also, culturally, women have always been at home, and men have gone out into the world and have had the time to think, to reflect, to have ideas. Women didn’t have that time, because they had to take care of domestic tasks. And so the fact of having a female character who’s a creator, who writes books, who is in the position, at last, of taking time to write, means that it’s the man who suffers. That’s why the argument begins with the question of time. I think it’s something universal and fundamental vis à vis the place of men and women in the family. Sorry, the answer is too long!
No, it’s great. And actually, right now, my husband is on the other side of the door feeding our baby. So it’s all connecting.
Oh, my God! There’s a baby over there! It’s very interesting!
You spoke about your partner, Arthur Harari. I know you wrote the film together. I’m curious what that process was like.
I love life as a couple. But it’s also true that it can be quite dull. So I think it’s cool to be able to share creative moments with Arthur; I’ve cast him in some of my previous films. What was interesting was to get him into my territory, to be able to share this. We started a week before COVID hit. I had an eight-month-old baby. Maybe it’s not the same age as your baby.
Nine months, so yeah.
Ah! Wow. Very intense.
So that whole period was very intense. But the baby napped a lot, and we took shifts. I think that we had a certain naïveté, because we never said to ourselves that we were making a film about a couple. But the questions of MeToo were inevitably in the mix. None of the people around me could avoid asking questions about their way of living, their way of splitting time.
On the other hand, I didn’t wait for MeToo to live in a really equitable way. Arthur has always done more child care than me. I think that I was really formed in relation to my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother was extremely feminist, a woman quite ahead of her time. Socially, she came from a very poor milieu, but she really understood those codes, even if she didn’t understand the theory behind them. And my mother was in the inverse position: stuck at home, a little bit trapped by my father, with three kids. So I saw these two blueprints, which made it very clear to me what I wanted and what I didn’t want. When I had a baby, I absolutely did not want to be doing child care solo. I didn’t ask; I imposed that schema. [Laughs.]
But Arthur wrote just as much of the female characters as the male characters. We didn’t divvy the writing up in a gendered way. Maybe the most complex scene for us was the fight scene, because I wanted to keep it for myself. It’s a scene that was rewritten sixty times because for a long time I didn’t find these people interesting. I kept saying stuff like, “These people don’t interest me, I don’t want to see a movie about them.” I had to find a way to postpone the physical explosion to the end of the scene so that it could really be a match of ideas, which becomes like an antechamber, the rehearsal for the courtroom.
You’re talking about the different spaces in the film. There’s this very private space, where they’re having the argument—the space of the household and the family. It then gets translated to a very public space, the space of the courtroom, where one member of the couple has to relive their private disputes.
That’s what fascinates me about the public sphere. It’s the place where society imposes its morality on women, on men, or their way of living. And the fact that Sandra is a writer, too—she isn’t a “good” victim because she seems to have her wits about her. She’s strong; she’s powerful. At the trial, she becomes potentially dubious, or menacing, because she speaks multiple languages, seems to be totally in control of narrative, fiction, writing.
And she really doesn’t help herself. She’s constantly saying things that undermine her own case. At one point, her lawyer presents a version of what could have happened if Samuel did indeed kill himself. It’s pretty convincing. But Sandra says, “That wasn’t Samuel.” She seems to have an almost self-destructive commitment to the truth, but there’s something very beautiful about that, too.
She wants to tell the truth, and it’s very hard for her to understand that it’s not a question of truth; it’s a question of convincing. What interests me about this character is that she’s someone who doesn’t seduce, who doesn’t want to seduce. That’s extremely rare. In fact, I’ve never worked with an actress who herself incarnates that in life, until Sandra [Hüller]. She’s not interested in seduction at all. She isn’t interested in makeup or things like that; she’s totally stripped down. And so we worked that into the character. The character is someone who thinks that she’s going to win by telling the truth, by being sincere, which is obviously not at all how a trial works.
It occurs to me that this trial looks very different from what an American trial does. I think that’s going to strike American viewers—even the fact that Sandra can speak when she likes, even when she’s not on the stand. How much experience did you have with the French legal system?
I think that was the central question at the start of the writing process. The form is very important. I absolutely didn’t want to copy the Americans, to do another version of the thing that I’ve already seen, and that I love, but that isn’t set where I live. So I met a lawyer, someone really super, who helped us during the writing process and who explained something interesting about the French system, which is that sometimes the judge—in France, it’s the president, but for you it’s the judge—can decide to do things in a more anarchic way. The distribution of speech is much more anarchic. And I found that interesting because it created something much livelier and less codified than what we already know.
I chose an old-fashioned courtroom on purpose. I could have gone into a really modern courtroom. They exist in France, but I decided to use one that was a little dirty, a little old: old French justice. We weren’t in a big city. It wasn’t Paris, it wasn’t Lyon, it wasn’t Marseille. We were in a small city, where the way of thinking about morality is different than it is in a big city. So all of that came into play, of course.
For most of us, our understanding of the legal system comes through movies and TV. We’re not in a courtroom ourselves, unless we’re in the profession or have had some exposure to a trial. When I was watching the film, there was an older male critic sitting next to me, and afterward he said the lawyers should have objected more, as if this were a trial from American film or TV.
Ah! [Laughs.] “Objection,” c’est ça?
Yeah. He had taken the paradigm of an American trial and imposed it onto your movie as its own kind of judgment.
When Arthur and I began to write the trial scenes, we were so influenced by “Objection, Your Honor!” As you can tell from the title, Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” is a movie that has haunted me for years. I’ve seen all the American movies on the justice system. But we had to do things differently so that it could be more engaging.
All these details about how we fundamentally wanted to represent things were very important. For example, I really suffer as a spectator when I see trials presented as extremely smooth, clean, perfect. It’s as if God himself were speaking; a ray of light shines down. That almost Christlike vision of justice really bothers me, because I’ve spent a lot of time at trials, and what’s interesting about the justice system is that it’s fallible. So I directed the actors by telling them not to play the role: not to play “the cop,” “the lawyer,” “authority.” Most people who work in places like this are way more relaxed. They’re thinking about when they’re going to eat, the next break. All that had to be introduced into the film to produce something more real.
The film is set in the mountains by Grenoble. Did you know the setting well before shooting there?
I hadn’t been to the mountains at all between the age of fifteen and just before the shoot. I almost died in the mountains when I was fifteen. It’s a pretty complicated story. I’d never skied before and had a serious accident and spent a year in the hospital. So, for me, the mountains were not a friendly place. It was an environment that frightened me. At the same time, I was fascinated by the light that appears in films set in the mountains—that very violent light. The film takes place in two confined settings, and I liked the idea that the natural light would be very violent. And the film is about the question of a fall, so I found it interesting to be in a world that rises and descends constantly, where there was almost a metaphor for the film in the mountains.
What was it like to return to the mountains after so many years of being away?
I loved it. It was a really powerful experience because I was far from my family. It was great to spend two months like that. It was very strange and very complex to make a digital film in the mountains. It’s as if the landscape hasn’t adapted to being filmed. No test you’ve done works, because the light is too strong. When people were shooting on film, it was O.K.: the film burned, but it worked. But on digital, you get bizarre distortions.
So how did you handle it?
We handled it! Plus, all my influences were movies from the seventies where the quality of the image is really scruffy. We were looking for that kind of texture in the image. I think that nowadays we see so many films on streaming platforms that look extremely perfect, where the quality of the image is totally smooth. I’m always looking for a film with something less perfect. Maybe that’s what’s changed the most from my last film. I want that imperfection.
I want to ask about the music in the film. There’s a song that’s key to the movie: an instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.,” which Samuel blasts on the day he dies. I heard that the song was supposed to be “Jolene.”
And you couldn’t get the rights. Why did you want it to be “Jolene”?
I loved the rhythm and the joy and the almost hypnotic quality of the song. And in the trial scenes, there was a whole dissection of the lyrics—certain lyrics that could be interpreted as the husband sending a signal, et cetera. And, quite simply, it’s a song that I can listen to on loop. It’s practically an American anthem.
But we couldn’t get the rights. And so, I’d listened to this 50 Cent cover for maybe three years. You know, when you make playlists, there are always some songs that stay, and this one stayed because it was associated with a party that I threw. It has lyrics that are pretty misogynistic, obviously. But it also has something quite warm about it, which contrasts hugely with the situation that this character is about to go through: the discovery of her dead husband. And I realized that you could play this song many times and it wouldn’t get annoying. My dream was to put the original version over the end credits, but that was too expensive. [Laughs.]
This film has been called a feminist film. Is that a label that you agree with?
Of course. I couldn’t be in this profession, and be as I am, without being feminist. But, just to be clear, I hate the idea of writing a film while saying to myself, I’m going to make a film with a thesis, or an edifying film, or a film just to prove something.
You mentioned MeToo. I’ve spoken to a lot of French women, writers and thinkers and artists, and there is a kind of consensus that MeToo failed in France. I wonder what you think of that idea.
We’re really, really behind in France. It’s a problem. When it comes to the representation of women in ceremonies like the Césars, it takes a long time. In the beginning, I wasn’t for quotas. But now I am, to force the game a bit, to put women on an equal playing field with men. We have to do it, because it won’t get done naturally.
Can you explain what you mean by quotas?
I’m talking above all about quotas in film selections, in film juries, in all the places where we need to shine a light on women’s films and encourage them to show their films. But, obviously, it’s also a question about representation on film sets, in positions that women usually don’t occupy. I’m trying to do it, too. It’s sometimes hard, because we have teams where we can’t be unfair to certain people whom we adore, who are men. You don’t want to be ridiculous and brutal, and say, “Go screw yourselves, I’m only hiring women.” On my set, though, all the electrical jobs were done by women, and they aren’t, usually. So I was very proud of that.
In the United States, one early slogan of the MeToo movement was “believe women.” That turns out to be a complicated idea, because women are people, and people lie. It’s not as if you can correct for an entire history of bias and abuse against women by simply believing them. And your film is so much about belief, who’s to be believed. Did that idea of “believe women” inform the making of the movie?
Yes, I think this is going back to what I was saying about this character who is ultimately too intelligent, and too complex, to be believed. As a director, it’s always thrilling to show people who aren’t perfect, who aren’t virtuous. Men have had hundreds of years to be imperfect. I always think of the example of “Mad Men.” I hope we can do that for women. Sometimes we’re stuck in the idea that, because of MeToo, we have to show perfect women. That’s something that bothers me.
And then there’s “I believe you” in connection with, for example, sexual harassment or rape. In France, that’s a really, really powerful idea, because it’s something that never existed in the past. Someone in a screening said to me, “Why did you make a movie about a woman who’s potentially an aggressor, while women are tortured all over the world and are more often victims?” And I ask myself that. I’ve seen so many movies about rape, about the murder and dismemberment of women. People watch all these things about serial killers who are mostly men who kill women. As a feminist woman, I don’t want to add to that narrative. It interests me way more to show women in a complex situation, rather than as victims.
In your film, there are so many layers of belief. You have the biggest layer, the justice system, where the question is which story is going to be believed. You have the public—what does the public believe about this couple?—and then you have the intimate sphere of the couple itself, what they believe about each other. And there’s often no overlap between these spheres.
Yes, and each of these circles is like another match that [Sandra] has to replay. She has to justify herself at the trial, and at home to her son, and to her husband, too, when he was still alive. She has to demonstrate over and over that she has the right to live how she does. That was something that was there from the beginning. There’s this idea of needing to replay the scene to try to understand this woman, to analyze her.
When we started making the film, I was obsessed with [Michelangelo] Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” You know the crime in that movie, where you get closer and closer to an image, and suddenly you see what looks like a murder? I had the feeling that with the trial, it’s not as if you ever see the murder, but you can get closer and closer to it, until, at the end, you’re so close that you can’t see anything at all. You’re too far and too close at the same time. It’s this idea that we’re never in the right place to perceive the truth.
I want to ask you about your speech at Cannes. Did you know ahead of time that you would speak about the Macron government and the repression of the protests against the réforme des retraites?
I spent a lot of time in postproduction for this film, and I was surrounded by a lot of politically active people. I felt that three quarters of the French public were in the street to protest this reform. It was a symbol. It wasn’t just about retirement; it was the way that the law was forced through in an extremely authoritarian manner.
I wasn’t thinking about myself, obviously, because I have a really cool job that I’d like to keep doing until I’m ninety. But everyone in the country had been going through this, and all that was hushed up at Cannes. At the beginning, there were some protests, but that was it. And I said to myself, O.K., this is the best place to say something. I didn’t think I would get the Palme d’Or when I wrote the text. And when I got up onstage, I said, O.K., I’m doing it. This may be the time when I’ll have the most eyes on me.
My words were really misrepresented the next day. [The second part of Triet’s speech was about France’s “cultural exception,” or state support of the arts, being under threat.] I was talking about the generation that’s coming up. Obviously our system in France is really, really great. I was speaking about the fact that it’s threatened, and that it has to be protected, because things are changing. Yes, we have to make big movies with Netflix, but we have to also make small movies on the cheap.
It was just a message to say: I’m forty-five, I won the Palme d’Or, that’s wonderful. But I started out by making films with zero money. If I’ve reached this point, it’s thanks to this system. Let’s take care of it.
I’m trying to think of a way to help an American audience understand the “cultural exception,” which is not something that we have here, obviously. Can you explain how you were helped when you were first starting out?
When you start out making films in France, you need financing, and there are public and private means of financing a film. We have the C.N.C. [National Film and Moving Image Center], which is really a terrific place. It helps get first films made. The money that it gives is called “advance on revenue.” It’s an advance on what you’ll make afterward with the film. If you make a lot, you pay back the advance. I’ve paid it back many times, because people came to see my films, so I’ve given back public money.
And if you can’t reimburse the money because your film hasn’t sold enough tickets, well, that’s that. It’s a system that protects you from being totally profit-driven. And, in fact, contrary to what many people believe, the money doesn’t come from taxes paid by the public. It comes from the sales of movie tickets. It’s a tax on tickets. It’s really done well, and it’s something that the whole world is envious of, actually. Except that today, the Cour des Comptes, the people in charge of auditing the use of public funds, want to say that films have to make more money, and be more profitable.
But, if you do that, you’re going to put a lot of people beginning their careers on the sidelines, people who can’t sell a ton of tickets. So what will happen? They’ll adapt books because they’ll say, O.K., this is really “of the moment.” But all the people who have strong craft, who are innovative, wonderful artists—they won’t necessarily have a career. So it’s a space to protect. I could talk about it for hours. ♦