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Center of Gravity: Justine Triet on Anatomy of a Fall

Images: Samuel Theis, Sandra Hüller and Milo Machado-Graner in Anatomy of a Fall (courtesy of NEON)Images: Samuel Theis, Sandra Hüller and Milo Machado-Graner in Anatomy of a Fall (courtesy of NEON)

Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall begins with no image, just sound: the click of a recording device being turned on and Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) asking, “What do you want to know?” Starting from this clearly symbolic opening line, the ensuing brief exchange foreshadows much. Sandra is an autofiction author whose work has generated controversy (her family objected to her first book, an event she dramatized in her second), so volunteering herself for interrogation by earnest graduate student Zoé (Camille Rutherford) isn’t merely an opportunity to provide biographical context but a risky invitation for moral scrutiny. Their conversation turns out to be a long prelude to the titular fall when, after Zoé leaves, Sandra’s husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) plunges from the top of their multistory house onto the snowy ground below. Suspected of murder, Sandra will spend most of the movie compelled to keep answering questions about herself, while her son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) must decide what he believes about his mother. 

The opening’s brief decoupling of sound from image is expanded later, in Anatomy’s central sequence, when a vicious fight between Sandra and Samuel, surreptitiously recorded by the latter, is played in the courtroom. At first, it’s only heard blaring out of the court’s speakers as everyone sits and listens before Triet gives viewers images to go along with it. At the crucial moment when the fight audibly turns physically violent, she cuts back to the courtroom, removing the possibility of witnessing objective proof of what happened. Questions of what each thud means and who did what remain unresolvable. 

Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Triet’s fourth narrative feature is both an expansion of previously iterated thematic concerns and an exploration of a new stylistic mode. Her initial work as a documentary filmmaker includes Solférino, shot during the 2007 French presidential elections that led to the election of Nicolas Sarkozy over Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal. (Solférino is the street where the Socialist Party headquarters is). The picture laid the foundations for her debut narrative feature. Called Age of Panic in English, its French title, La Bataille de Solférino, creates continuity with her previous work. Triet integrates nervy handheld footage captured on the street during the 2012 elections into a high-energy drama about a TV reporter (Lætitia Dosch) reporting on the day’s events while dealing with her children and, more stressfully, ex-husband.

Triet’s next two features, 2016’s Victoria and 2019’s Sybil, trade handheld expedience for elegant widescreen compositions and stately camera glides. Tonally diffuse dramedies clocking in at around 100 minutes, both star Virginie Efira as the respective title characters, professionally ambitious women put through multiple stress positions. In Victoria, she’s a lawyer representing a man accused of abusing his partner (an attorney-client relationship whose genders are flipped in Anatomy—male attorney, female defendant). Sybil presents Efira as a therapist sucked into a film shoot gone horribly wrong, where stressed director Mikaela “Mika” Sanders (Sandra Hüller, in her first collaboration with Triet) barks at her international coproduction cast and crew in English out of necessity. Autofiction is an important element in both films. Victoria finds herself viciously characterized in barely disguised form by her ex in his work and files a lawsuit against him; Sybil harvests a patient’s confessions for a novel. Like Sybil, Samuel taped his conversations with Sandra as potentially generative material for a novel; in court, that recording is just another piece of evidence.

At the core of all four of Triet’s narrative features to date is a woman accused by a partner, former or current, of being too much, of taking up an excess of space or not allowing others their own. That judgment often intersects with a condemnation of sexual desire, as is also the case in one of Fall’s reference points, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Vérité. In that 1960 film, Dominique Marceau (Brigitte Bardot) has her reputation examined from every possible point of prosecutorial attack, including being kicked out of school for passing around a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins. “Three pages out of 600!” her counsel objects after a racy passage is read out loud to establish her dubious character. Triet paraphrases that exchange in Fall when the prosecutor reads from one of Voyter’s books, where a character despises her weak husband and fantasizes about killing him. Her counsel immediately objects that “a minor character” is being quoted in a passage when she’s clearly going insane. In both Vérité and Fall, a woman is judged not just on the evidence but on her morality, as established through her sex life—Dominique is attacked for being loose, Sandra for being loose and bisexual.

This outline of reference points and recurring motifs is incomplete; at 150 minutes, Anatomy of a Fall is a capacious, consistently entertaining vessel for many more. I spoke with Triet, whose own language was mediated by Zoom and translator Assia Turquier-Zauberman. Anatomy of Fall enters theatrical release from NEON on October 13.

Filmmaker: Could you begin by talking about your documentary films, especially the link between Solférino, the documentary, and Age of Panic, which returns to the same setting and integrates it into a fictional narrative? 

Triet: When I made my first documentary, I didn’t know that I would go on to make the fiction film Age of Panic. It was a way for me to get to know the workings of the day of the presidential election, both what happened [at] Solférino, where the Socialist Party headquarters are, and on the side of Sarkozy’s headquarters. Even though it was a documentary, that was aesthetic research that was closer to a cinematic aesthetic than a pure documentary approach. [It] gave me the background I needed, when I then went on to make my first feature film, to have the freedom to work from that documentation.

Filmmaker: Part of the reason I ask is you’ve often integrated nonperformers alongside performers, in this case with TV reporters. I was wondering what you took from that background of interacting with nonfiction subjects and how that affects the dynamic with the performers in your fiction films.

Triet: The idea that a fiction film can become some kind of direct translation of writing is something I try to avoid, so I try to leave room [to] produce accidents. I have always worked with nonprofessional actors partly for that reason, but also because my own training was not [at] a classical cinema school. I went to a fine arts school, where I didn’t get fiction filmmaking classes, but, instead, video art and documentary film [classes]. All of these things still apply, even now [when] I work in a more classically organized film structure. I still try to bring my actors, especially professional actors, to situations that are slightly less comfortable for them, to try and make them forget this awful thing which goes around making the real from falsity.

In this latest film, it was a particular challenge because the script was my most completed work. So, what I did was take this text, which had been sculpted to perfection to some degree, and work it in quite a fast way. Speed had quite a lot to do with the ways in which we would prepare for shooting days. Also, Sandra Hüller is one of the first actresses I’ve worked with who has such interesting first takes, things that aren’t reproducible later—she was a big element of adding some accidents and spontaneities. Then, of course, [there was] working with a 13-year-old child—my first time working with a child [who] had such important text to be said—as well as the difference between Sandra Hüller and Swann Arlaud, [who] are opposite in their methods of acting; something was generated in the tension. The entire procedure was kind of schizophrenic for me, insofar as I was attempting some kind of formal precision while having moments for the emergence of something unexpected. So, I was working on creating a very light atmosphere where the set was going to be forgotten and things could flow in a natural way.

It was very important for me to try to get away from the weight of a judicial image, which we’re used to in France. Not just in France—in America, also, there tend to be lights [in the courtroom] that come from above, creating images which are almost ecclesiastical. In the editing process, we were always trying to break that: choosing scenes that had the most accidents within them, doing away with the more beautiful images to try to get to a barer form. 

Filmmaker: I want to ask about the use of English. Your use of it seems to contain an almost metacinematic element in that we understand as viewers that it might make the film more market-friendly if there’s more English in it. At the same time, I read that in order for the film to be eligible for Best International Film at the Academy Awards, no more than 50 percent of it can be in English. I was curious if there’s a point in the script writing or in the postproduction where you actually have to sit there and time the French versus the English, and how that affects your writing process, if at all.

Triet: It’s actually the other way around. If anything, my producers were quite wary that the hybrid languages might make it less exportable. What we did have to count words and time for is to get the French funding, because the CNC [France’s public funding body] can only fund films that are done at least 50 percent in French. For that reason, we did have to take that into account—to get French money, not American.

More broadly, I had this obsession [with] staging a person being tried in a foreign land. I was obsessed with Amanda Knox and other examples that were in the news, women who get tried away from home and have other things that come into play in the tribunal. In Amanda Knox’s case, her beauty was an actor in the circumstances. And language is an important actor in the film itself—as the incarnation of the couple’s difficulty communicating, for one, and as the predominant filter between Sandra Hüller’s character and everything that surrounds her. It’s something that’s between her and her son, between her and her legal team, between her and her writing. Also, because she writes in [another language], [her writing] then gets reanalyzed into the French setting. The entire film is [centered] around the desire to comprehend the chaos that is a couple, and this couple in particular. It has this obsessive structure where we’re basically rehashing a single conjugal scene throughout, trying to decipher something. Language has everything to do with the deciphering attempts in the tribunal, which opposes two languages—an impulsive language which happened in the domestic sphere, and the more civilized, organized speech that’s supposed to occur in the trial room.

Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that even before production started you had to be clear with your cinematographer Simon Beaufils and editor Laurent Sénéchal about wanting to lean more into a “documentary drift” direction. I’m wondering what kind of specific directives you gave to both of them in order to bring that out of the work. I say that having just rewatched Victoria and Sibyl, which are widescreen and much more overtly controlled. Here, you work against that to some extent. 

Triet: I want to cite something Truffaut said which very much applies to me: He cannot conceive of making a new film if [he] isn’t making it against the one that came before. There’s definitely something of that [nature] for me between Age of Panic and then [the pair of] Victoria and Sibyl, which inscribe themselves in a different relationship to control. With this, I [am] making something that once again comes in reaction to these two films. In the editing process, I was obsessed by the takes which were not perfect, too smooth formally or too beautiful.

I work in two consecutive steps. Before shooting, I am very clear in my planning of the scenes. Then, when I get to the actual set, I engage quite drastically in destruction of that preproduction work. In this case, the dialogue with the cinematographers was such that I almost never left the image. This is the film that I was most involved in making the image for. Sometimes, I even wanted to make the frame myself. A lot of the ideas came from the movement of the actors or an accident on set. I was always telling the image team to try to look at the actors themselves rather than at the machine. One example is [Milo’s] testimony. A courtroom happens to be a rectangle that you have so many ways to photograph, and at that point, I was very frustrated with all of the possible axes. None of them worked for me, and my cameraman was trying to find something in these very long panoramas that I was getting very, very bored of, until his assistant, unexpectedly and by mistake, jerked him to the side and created a much faster camera movement. At that moment, the actor started to move his body and followed this gaze. So, we organized the entire scene around this movement, with very quick [dollies] from side to side [with Milo turning his head left and right as the camera moves to either side of him]. I search every time for that kind of accident. 

Filmmaker: In Victoria, you designed a courtroom for widescreen. It’s very striking and has very bright red walls. Here, you were filming in a real courtroom in a different aspect ratio.

Triet: Victoria is a very rhythmical comedy, which has a satirical element and is also very short. This is opposed to it. Temporally, I was working with duration in a different way, attempting to create a situation of fatigue where we would see these people not doing what I call “playing their function,” which is always a threat when you go into the register of trial cinema—you see a TV representation of people imitating the judge or lawyer. [We were] wanting to enter a more everyday way of playing these roles. That comes through the set, the French tribunal, which is kind of ugly. We didn’t try to make it any less ugly than it was. And even though it’s still a rhythmical film to some degree, [it’s] working in a slower duration and [has] no perfect catchphrases or dialogue. That’s true also in terms of the fact that the end of the film doesn’t operate [around] a twist or grand revelation. When one makes a genre film, one must be aware that a lot has been done before.

Filmmaker: I’m wondering what the order of production on this film was like and how it affected the outcome of it.

Triet: We were not free to do exactly what we wanted to do on the schedule. It’s always money problems. We had to first film everything that happens inside of the house before getting to the trial. It was difficult sometimes in terms of being able to anticipate continuity, especially emotional continuity, knowing what kind of tensions we were supposed to be leading in and out of between the trial and the homestead. My method is to shoot as much as I can in every situation so that I can then work things out in the editing room—which I think was right, because sometimes what we were getting was very, very far from what we should’ve been getting. So, I tried to shoot a lot to compensate for that in the editing room. And there were other material constraints, [like] the snow disappearing after some time, so having to find a way to have continuity in that. 

Also, we had to shoot with digital, even though I really, really wanted to shoot film. It was a big discussion between my producers [Marie-Ange Luciani and David Thion], my DP and I because I was obsessed by so many movies made in film. My DP told me, “You are so obsessed with that kind of color, so you have to do it in film.” But my producers said, “Justine is doing 20, 25 takes, so it’s not possible.” I think I [could have done it on] film if I hadn’t [had] a child [as a major performer] because Sandra was so amazing in a few takes. But the child, it was not possible—it’s normal, he’s a child and I asked for him to do very, very [difficult] things. So, in the end, I don’t regret it, but it was a big, big thing. On film, the mountain light is very special. In digital, it makes many aberrations, so, it’s big work after. And [it caused problems with the contact lenses Machado Graner’s character wears. He’s] not really blind. I did a big, big [casting session] before with just blind people, and we didn’t succeed. [We had to find contact lenses that were] very subtle in not doing the same thing [as] in the ’70s. In the ’70s, everybody has white lenses and it’s a little ridiculous, you know? So, we searched for something much more subtle, and it was a big problem with the [digital] cameras. [If] your face is here or there, [the contact lenses aren’t] the same color. I was obsessed by that.

Filmmaker: Was it important when you were casting that the child be able to play piano for real?

Triet: It was very important. I asked for Milo to learn it three months before. I found Milo in November, I think, and we shot in March. So, I asked for him to learn, and he was a genius because he learned in [a very short time]. I hate when you have to [cut around the piano player’s hands]—I already did it in Victoria, but I don’t like it, and I really wanted to follow the playing. [It’s] the same idea of trying to stay close to something real rather than having all these ways of faking.

Filmmaker: There’s a little joke in Sibyl, too, when they’re filming on set, and Hüller demands that the actor who’s not really playing the piano try to look real because his clearly fake playing is pissing her off. 

You’ve talked about how your dream job, if you weren’t a filmmaker, was to be a lawyer. Where did this obsession with the law originally come from? Does it relate to the storytelling, or is it something that lives in a different place for you?

Triet: When I was 20 and studying fine arts, I had this dream of becoming a lawyer and spent all of my time in the tribunal. At the time, naively, I had this idea that it was the stage where great struggles were working themselves out, and that it was a place of truth. Today, of course, I’m interested in that world for exactly the opposite [reason]. For me, the trial space is the space where fiction begins. The judicial domain is the place that appropriates our lives and interprets them. It’s also the place of language, in which we are meant to master emotions that presumably weren’t mastered elsewhere, since a lot of people are on trial for murder and rape and whatnot. 

Filmmaker: Obviously, in this film and the previous two, there is a recurring interest in autofiction and the potential abuses of people in one’s life for the purpose of creating something new. I don’t know anything about your life, and I’m not really asking, but could you speak a little bit to this anxiety that keeps recurring in your work?

Triet: It’s a question that will be of import to anybody who does the same work that I do. There’s a quiet vampirism to any kind of artistic production, where things come to some degree from the things that surround us. At the same time—and this is something that is echoed in the first scene of the film—there is a contemporary obsession with the question of whether something is true or not, something that comes from one’s intimate life or not. [That’s echoed in] the dialogue between the student and Sandra Hüller in the first scene, where she makes a case for fiction and, in some ways, hides herself inside that. Of course, I can also empathize with that desire to know. The people that I like to read, like Joan Didion, for example, are also involved in this thing. So, it’s something that exists at many levels of interaction. In my film, these considerations develop a kind of paranoia around the possibility that our private lives are recuperated in a public sphere and then dissected, whether in a cultural or judicial space.

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