The true-crime genre gets a sharp, nuanced and decidedly feminist update in The Anatomy of a Fall, the new feature from French director Justine Triet, which wowed critics and audiences alike in its world premiere in Cannes competition on Monday.
The film stars German actress Sandra Hüller — famed for her performance in the 2016 Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann and who had a supporting role in Triet’s 2019’s drama Sibyl — as Sandra Voyter, a successful German novelist put on trial in France for the murder of her French, much-less-successful writer husband Samuel (Samuel Theis). The only witness to the death was the couple’s 11-year-old blind son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner).
The setup would seem to point to a “did she or didn’t she” mystery thriller, akin to Basic Instinct or HBO’s The Staircase, but Triet is less interested in a whodunit than in interrogating the legal system for its use of narrative fictions — when there are no facts, the prosecution spins fantasies about motives — and the conservative, often sexist assumptions that form the basis of those stories.
Neon picked up the film for North America shortly after its Cannes premiere.
Triet spoke to about her fascination with true crime stories, how she created the film’s central role for Hüller and the thin line between reality and fiction both onscreen and in the courtroom.
Sandra Hüller is amazing in this film. Did you create the role with her in mind?
Yes. I met Sandra 10 years ago, when she gave me an award at a festival. And, of course, like almost everyone, I saw Toni Erdmann. I was so impressed by that film and by her as an actress. I love the director (Maren Ade) and found it very inspiring. So, I sort of had her in my mind. That’s why I gave her the role in Sibyl. It was a small role for her, but I immediately connected to the relationship that she has to her acting. She has a very artistic approach, and her journey is very different from what you can see in France. She started with theater, and she has this very deep commitment, even physically, to what she does. It was during the making of Sibyl that I had this idea of creating a role for her.
The first idea was to write it mainly in English. I finally came up with this story [about a German writer living in France] because I decided that this question of the language would not just be something we should try to get rid of because you want to work with a foreign actress, but that language should be at the core of this foreign character who is being tried in a foreign country and can’t defend herself in her mother tongue. Language becomes a key aspect of the plot.
The structure of the film is very much in the true-crime genre. Are you a fan?
I read these kinds of true-crime stories on an almost daily basis and watch, again almost on a daily basis, these trial movies and series. So they were an inspiration. I’d always thought that one day I’d do a film with a trial at the heart of the plot, at the heart of the story. But often, the impression that I got as a viewer of these shows and films, or when I would read or watch them, is that the stories are too easy, too obvious. The resolution is always too obvious. I don’t want to give any spoilers for the film, but the resolution here is not obvious. My intention in making this film is to have something quite complex and, even by the end of the film, unclear. Together with my co-writer [Arthur Harari] we really worked on that aspect, to constantly create questions around the case and around the trial. You can see it as a whodunit, but I think it’s mainly a film about a couple’s relationship. What was interesting for me was to use this pretext of the murder trial to dissect the relationship of a couple who have a child together but do not have a common language. For me that was the center of the story, the trial was a side story.
The question of reality vs. fiction and how we turn the facts of the real world into narrative stories seem to be core themes of the movie. The two writers do work that is semi-autobiographical; they use their real lives as fodder for their novels. And then you have the legal system, in which the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense use very vague facts to create different fictionalized versions of what happened.
Exactly. I really see the court as a place where our lives are fictionalized, where a story, a narrative, is put on our life. Everybody there is telling a story, everybody’s creating a narrative, and everything is very far from the truth. Even Sandra and her defense lawyer distance themselves from the truth; they distort reality to be able to defend her — exactly what the prosecutor does on the other side to try and convict her. The state becomes very judgmental about her way of living. Doing the research for the film, I found it very interesting that even nowadays, in 2023, where, at least in France or in other Western countries, women are supposed to have equal status to men, life choices, like choosing a career, or being open sexually, are judged negatively. Sandra’s bisexuality is used against her in the case. I wanted to show how these trials are a kind of nightmare for people because your own life is taken away from you, everybody creates a fiction and are not not really trying to reach the truth. Myself, being obsessed with the truth and with trying to seek the truth through stories, I found that very interesting.
One of the core plot elements in the story involves an audio recording of a fight the couple have. The recording becomes very important in the trial. Now a recording like that is supposed to be a form of absolute proof, of clear facts. But even this sound recording is used by the prosecutor out of context. It becomes just material to fictionalize, and then attack, Sandra. Everybody is completely separated from the truth of what actually happened and is creating different fictions around her.
Speaking of that recording, how was it done? Did you just record the scene on set?
Actually, it was quite a challenge because the fight took us two days to shoot. And, from the beginning, writing the script with my co-writer, we didn’t agree on this fight. Writing this fight scene was actually a fight between the two of us about what it meant. For the shoot, Sandra wanted to do the entire scene in one day, she didn’t want to stop or break it up. But it was extremely grueling. It was a really hard process to get through. So we shot the first day. And then on the second day, I was watching them and I realized that even we we had all the material we needed, visually, the two couldn’t stop acting, playing out the full scene. So we kept recording and we had this full fight, maybe 12-14 minutes long, with its very violent ending, all recorded. It was really interesting for me because I’ve always been really fascinated by sound. I’ve more obsessed with recording sound than images. Because you cannot cheat with sound the way you can with images. The truth is in there. That’s something that you see in crime stories and trials, that audiences are fascinated by, by sound, they sense this degree of authenticity in it. But there’s another aspect which is this kind of emotional power, this melancholy, that you feel in sound that you can never create with images. One of the first decisions in the film, even during the writing process, was that we would take away some of the images, and have to cling to the sound, which would give us the material to seek the truth of the story, without the pictures to show it.
I think we’re out of time, but I want one very quick, incredibly important question: The dog in the film, the border collie Snoop, plays a key role in the plot. He’s almost my front-runner to win this year’s Palm Dog honor as best canine performer in Cannes. Was it a challenge working with him and how did you build him into this story?
Well, it was obvious to me from the start that Snoop would be the double of the husband. He’s not just another character or some animal running around. In many ways, he represents this dead person, this absent person. There was a scene we shot that we ended up editing out of the final film, where the dog vomits and it was very clear that he was the presence that has replaced Samuel. I’ve worked with animals before: I have a monkey and a dog in my previous films, and I know it’s often not easy to work with animals. But we had good luck this time to work with someone in the business, who trains animals for the industry. The lady who owns Snoop was a really key person for us to allow him to be a character, really as much a part of the film’s ensemble as any of the other actors. In several scenes, we are on the level of the dog; we see things from his perspective. He is as much a character as any other, and that was very important to me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.