Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” one of the best reviewed films of the Cannes competition, which was bought by Neon, examines the collapse of a marriage and a mother-and-son relationship in a documentary-style courtroom drama. The chamber piece is driven by Sandra Hüller’s (“Toni Erdmann”) nuanced performance as a successful German novelist on trial for the murder of her husband (Samuel Theis), who died in mysterious circumstances in a remote corner of the snowy French Alps. Their visually impaired 11-year-old son (Milo Machado Graner) is called on the witness stand, prompting a dissection of Sandra’s conduct as a wife and a mother. Supporting roles are played by Swann Arlaud and Antoine Reinartz.
“Anatomy of a Fall” marks a departure in terms of genre and tone for Triet, though she co-wrote it with Arthur Harari, with whom she co-wrote her previous three movies, “La bataille de Solferino,” “Victoria” and “Sibyl” — all of which were lighter fare. Repped by Mk2 films, the movie was produced by Les Films Pelléas and Les Films de Pierre.
Triet spoke to Variety about the genesis of “Anatomy of a Fall,” her collaboration with Hüller, why she was inspired by Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Truth,” how she tackled the courtroom genre and gave the film a feminist edge.
What made you want to make a courtroom drama?
After I finished “Sibyl” I felt that I had just completed a trilogy revolving around the portrait of a woman and I was ready to take a different direction. I quickly decided that I wanted to make courtroom drama that wouldn’t be a comedy. I had the idea of focusing on a couple through the prism of a trial. I also realized that I had filmed many children without ever giving them a proper role. In “Anatomy of a Fall” I wanted to capture an important moment in the life of a child at an age where he becomes more autonomous, and see the absolute trust he has in his mother transform slowly into a state of doubt.
U.S. procedurals are hugely popular in France. How did you make sure your film looked different?
Throughout the writing and editing process, I kept saying that that we had to avoid making a film that looked like an American procedural. Because it was a courtroom drama that flirted with genre, my main preoccupation was to make the film look as French as possible. It was funny because I asked my editor to do the opposite of what I usually want. I asked him to slow down the pace, and drift towards documentary. More than ever, I had to be very clear about my intentions, formally speaking. We filmed things in a particular way and didn’t use any flashbacks. Instead, we placed an emphasis on a few crucial sound bites. I think sound can be so much more emotionally powerful than images.
Is the film inspired by a true story?
At first, my co-writer and I tried to adapt a true story but the ones we found were too predictable. There weren’t many cases out there where we couldn’t guess the ending and where I could find a complex relationship to explore. I’ve also always been captivated by cases involving foreigners who are being trialed outside of their native country, so I wanted to have that element in the film, and also tackle themes that I’m passionate about and that I’ve dealt with before, like the dynamics of a relationship.
You worked with Sandra Hüller on “Sibyl.” What made you think of her for this part?
I really wanted to work with Sandra again after “Sibyl.” She inspired me so much while I was writing the script. I was afraid she would refuse because I could imagine another actress in that role. It was interesting to have her character speak in a language that’s not her native one, and the fact that she’s a novelist makes her even more mysterious. Sandra was incredible because she immediately loved the script and gave her part a dimension that wasn’t there at first. When I started this project I didn’t think ‘I’m going to create a film about powerful woman.’ It just came naturally because parity isn’t an issue in the relationship I have with my partner. But when Sandra took on that role, she gave it something very unique, strong yet soft, and played it without guilt. She made it her own.
Ultimately “Anatomy of a Fall” is as much a courtroom drama as a feminist film. Where did you pull your inspiration from?
Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” — I could even describe “Anatomy of a Fall” as an homage to Preminger’s film. It was one of the first criminal cases that was adapted into a film and while it seems classical and slow by today’s standards, it was a very modern at the time. I’ve seen it so many times and it’s a film that has strangely haunted me for the last 10 years. Then there’s “The Truth” by Clouzot which showed the misogyny of those times, the hatred towards Brigitte Bardot’s body, how she was criticized for her sexual freedom. I just rewatched it recently and thought it was a feminist film, even if Clouzot was notoriously harsh with Bardot during filming and tortured her. I thought there was a link with the character of Sandra who is being criticized and judged for the way she lives, for her bisexuality. “In Anatomy of a Fall,” we don’t really judge the crime but the freedom of a woman. Those films aside, I watch tons of content, lots of crime stories, so I’m inspired by of lot of different things.
How do you feel about being back in competition at Cannes?
I’ve been spoiled to be twice in competition at Cannes! It’s a festival that celebrates international cinema and theaters. I love going to the cinemas and watching films collectively more than before because it’s become less ordinary today. Cannes is also a place where our films can be harshly judged, where we can experience strong emotions in very little time. Last time with ‘Siby’l I was pregnant and terrified of delivering at the wrong time!
You’re one of the seven women in competition!
We’re still outnumbered by men! I have a 12 year-old daughter and when I see how young people perceive their relationships, family, gender dynamics, I’m convinced things are bound to evolve. But quotas are necessary to make real progress. Quotas can irritate some people, and I used to wonder, too, if it was a good idea, but without them women will not be fairly represented.