Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall has given her an experience unlike any other she’s had over her 15-year career — one that includes winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. “I would say that the job I’ve been doing since May is a job that I had never done before. It’s a new craft entirely,” she says. Anatomy of a Fall, which she co-wrote with her partner Arthur Harari, eschews the traditional courtroom drama to explore familial relationships when an ambitious, sexually self-assured novelist, played by Sandra Hüller, is put on trial for the suspicious death of her husband Samuel at their home in the French Alps.
DEADLINE: You wrote the part with Sandra Hüller in mind, having worked with her on your previous film, Sibyl. Was there anything she brought to the role that surprised you? A moment you perhaps weren’t expecting?
JUSTINE TRIET: Writing with Sandra in mind, even though Arthur and I were quite clear that we were trying to avoid certain stylistic tropes that would have to do with the genre film, we still had certain reflexes as authors that Sandra’s performance came to really erase once and for all. Because she had this really interesting paradox that I think exists within herself, in the way that she is as a person also, and the kind of sincerity and transparency that she has. She’s an extremely genuine person. She always says exactly what she means. So playing this one character, which is a character that is quite opaque in such a raw way, allowed for the kind of attention of this transparent opacity to really be something that brought the character to a new level. I think that although this was something that I led her toward in the way that I was directing her, it’s also truly something that she brought into the role herself.
More specifically, if I were to give a concrete scene, an example, the scene where she cries in the car was one where I was really baffled. Because it’s exactly an example of something that tends to be kind of tedious to do with actors. Making actors cry can be quite a difficult thing. And the way she did it, it’s difficult to experience — her eyes were crying but something else; it’s almost like a child was crying. She had this incredibly genuine quality. That was just a day on set that I remember being stunned by the kind of performance that I was receiving from her.
DEADLINE: The sound design of this film is so vital to the story. You allow us to see how visually impaired Daniel relies so much on sound, and we as the viewer also, in a way, come to rely on it. What guided your approach to that — even from early on in the film with the decision to use the instrumental 50 Cent song “P.I.M.P.” which Samuel pays on repeat at full-blast?
TRIET: I make the distinction between two different theories of sound, and two different kinds of sound in the film. Sound was [important] from the very, very beginning. It’s always been a central concern of ours in creating this film. The question of the song, the song that is the “P.I.M.P.” song, which of course is this basic standard at this point that is so recognizable for so many people. It can be brought, and it is brought, in the courtroom at some point to be analyzed for its linguistic content and the misogyny of it; it’s possible to read into it in that direction. It’s not that the song itself doesn’t carry any kind of semantic value. But more generally, and I think more importantly, the song at large becomes this: the words of the absent, the words of the dead. It’s the only direct sound that is emitted by Samuel as he’s alive.
The choice of this kind of music was important because it carries this tension; there’s aggressive sympathy to it, and maybe to Samuel’s character altogether. Which is very different, and for us much more effective, than the kind of aggression that one would be putting out by using metal music, for example. Or, more cliché yet, by using classical music, which of course since the ’90s has been used to stage scenes of violence and torture.
And then more generally in terms of the sound recording that we hear in court, and generally the relationship to sound that is based on a lack of vision, that was a whole other plot line for sound in our minds. We wanted to have this relationship between sound and the lack of images that would allow us to make it visible to the audience that in the absence of image, fantasy comes in. Which is basically to say, when there is a trace of truth left, it has to be filled with judgment and interpretation. And that becomes one of the ways to bring the point of the film home, which is to say that truth is very complex to be attained.
DEADLINE: Another view we’re often given through the film is that of the dog, who’s essentially the fourth family member. We can’t hear from him, but we can almost see what he sees. Can you talk more about bringing him into the story?
TRIET: I think the idea of this dog was very much in the original seed of this film. It was always clear to us that this dog was going to be treated as a point of view, in and of himself. And that his gaze and, I was going to say personhood — it’s not exactly that, but that his status as an observer was going to be the link also somehow between the different members of the family. And also the fact that he probably is the only one who actually saw what happened… This was something in the beginning that we found through the editing, that the lack of judgment of the animal was perhaps the closest thing we could have to something that represented and reflected the complexity of the situation.
And then on a more selfish note, I really just love to work with animals. Because of the discomfort they place me in, and the way in which their presence brings back to me, and to everyone, the absurdity of what the job that we’re trying to do is. It levels out and levels down the seriousness of our profession. The dog cannot help but look at the camera, cannot be made to understand the stakes of this make-belief in this way. That’s always a real addition to the set dynamics.
DEADLINE: You became the third woman to win the Palme D’or, which is a great achievement and also speaks to how far the industry still has to go in undoing the imbalance with excluding women. How do you feel about the industry, as a woman filmmaker, and is it improving in the way you’d like it to?
TRIET: Saying I’m honored to have this prize is not doing it justice. This prize and the way that I was to receive it, is beyond me. Of course, getting this prize and being told that I was the third woman to receive it, was both moving and surreal. I was incredibly proud of it. But it’s also an extremely worrying statistic. When I was younger, I felt that I was very much lacking in female role models in cinema and beyond. I had to learn, as I’m sure that many of us did, to detect the women behind the men that I admired. And to find all of the places and ways in which women were present this whole time, but just outside of public view and recognition. So today that’s being rehabilitated, which is a fantastic thing, but it’s also coming with its load of societal guilt.
With that comes a baggage of less interesting and sometimes full-on dumb ways of trying to mediate and repair the history that was, which can come up in some kind of virtue signaling. Whether in narratives that we’re seeing from men that have so obviously been ranked to find a way to make them into the right kind of narrative that needs to be heard today. Or from women who sometimes will just go into these power reversal stories, which to me are just not what the collective progress and process should be about.
That being said, I think these are just the beginnings; I’m sure it’s the beginning of the mini revolution that is underway. Some of these unfortunate forms of it are just what we need to get through to go further. And when I started being involved with the movement 50/50, which is a movement for parity in cinema, what it was, was really to just look at the numbers. When I saw the numbers after #MeToo — this was taking the logical conclusion of #MeToo — I was flabbergasted. I realized that I had also been participating in the ignorance as to the actual size of the absence of women in the field.
Of course I dream of a day that these things won’t be a question. That one’s gender will not be something that is brought up in moments of creation because I will be allowed like anybody else, the way that men are today, to stand in for the universal gaze. I believe that we’ll get there. I think that there are really things that are underway and changing in the countries that I dwell in, where there has been a certain amount of progress in women’s rights. Where we see the people now, I think who are between the ages of 10 and 15 years old, are really growing up with a different sense of something.
So, I have a lot of hope for the ways in which the integration of this new knowledge will soon come to be able to be taken for granted, and we’re really going to be able to move forward from there.