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The true crime genre gets a stark, nuanced, and decidedly feminist update The anatomy of a fallthe new feature film by French director Justine Triet, which wowed critics and audiences on Monday in its world premiere in competition at Cannes.
The film stars German actress Sandra Hüller, famous for her performance in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Tony Erdman and who had a supporting role in Triet’s 2019 drama Sybil – as Sandra Voyter, a successful German writer tried in France for the murder of her French 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 ‘she or isn’t she’ mystery thriller, akin to Primitive instinct or HBO The Staircasebut Triet is less interested in a whodunit than interrogating the legal system for its use of fictional narratives—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 with The Hollywood Reporter about his fascination with true crime stories, how he created the central film role for Hüller, and the fine line between fact and fiction both on screen and in the courtroom.
Sandra Hüller is fantastic in this film. Did you create her role with her in mind?
YES. I met Sandra 10 years ago when she awarded me at a festival. And of course, like almost everyone, I’ve seen Tony Erdman. I was so impressed with that movie and with her as an actress. I love the director (Maren Ade) and found him very inspiring. So, I sort of had that in mind. That’s why I gave her the role of her in Sybil. It was a small role for her, but I immediately connected with her relationship to her acting. She has a very artistic approach and her journey is very different from what you can see in France. You started with the theater and you have this very deep commitment, even physically, in what you do. It was during the making of Sybil that I had this idea to create 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 language issue wasn’t just going to be something we should try to get rid of because you want to work with a foreign actress, but that language should be the focus of this foreign character who is being tried in a foreign country and cannot defend himself in his native language. 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 kind of true crime stories almost every day and I watch, again almost every day, these test movies and series. So they were an inspiration. I always thought that one day I would make a film with a trial at the center of the plot, at the heart of the story. But often, the impression I got as a viewer of these shows and movies, or when reading or watching them, is that the stories are too easy, too obvious. The resolution is always too obvious. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but the resolution here is not obvious. My intention in making this film is to have something rather complex and, even at the end of the film, unclear. Together with my co-writer (Arthur Harari) we really worked on that, to constantly create questions about the case and the trial. You can see it as a whodunit, but I think it’s mostly a couple’s relationship movie. What was interesting to me was using this murder trial pretext to dissect the relationship of a couple who have a child together but don’t have a common language. For me that was the core of the story, the trial was a side story.
The question of reality versus fiction and how we transform real-world facts into narrative stories appear to be central themes of the film. The two writers make a semi-autobiographical work; they use their real lives as fodder for their novels. And then there’s the legal system, where the prosecution and defense attorneys use very vague facts to create different fictitious versions of what happened.
Exactly. I really see the courthouse as a place where our lives are fictionalized, where a story, a narrative, is inserted into our lives. Everyone is telling a story, everyone is creating a narrative, and it’s all a long way from the truth. Sandra and her defense attorney also distance themselves from the truth; they twist reality in order to be able to defend her – exactly what the prosecutor does on the other side to try to convict her. The state becomes very critical of her way of life. While doing the research for the film, I found it very interesting that even today, in 2023, where, at least in France or other Western countries, women should have the same status as men, life choices, how to choose a career, or being open sexually, they are judged negatively. Sandra’s bisexuality is used against her in her case. I wanted to show how these trials are kind of a nightmare for people because your very life is taken from you, everyone creates a fiction and doesn’t really try to reach the truth. Myself, being obsessed with truth and trying to seek truth through stories, I found it very interesting.
One of the central plot elements of the story involves an audio recording of a fight the couple has. Registration becomes very important in the process. Now such a record should be a form of absolute proof, of clear facts. But even this sound recording is used by the prosecution out of context. It just becomes material to romance, and then attack, Sandra. Everyone is completely divorced from the truth of what actually happened and are 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 it took us two days to shoot the fight. And, from the very 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 that meant. For the shoot, Sandra wanted to shoot the entire scene in one day, she didn’t want to interrupt or interrupt it. But it was extremely exhausting. It was a really tough process to get through. So we shot the first day. And then the second day, I was watching them and I realized that we too had all the material that we needed, visually, the two of them just couldn’t stop acting, playing the whole 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 to me because I’ve always been very fascinated by sound. I’m more obsessed with recording sound than images. Because you can’t cheat with sound like you can with pictures. The truth is in there. It’s something that you see in crime stories and trials, that audiences are fascinated by, sound, they sense this degree of authenticity to it. But there’s another aspect which is this kind of emotional power, this melancholy, that you hear in sound that you can never create with images. One of the first decisions of the film, even during the writing process, was to take away some images and to hold on to the sound, which would give us the material to seek the truth of the story, without the images to show it.
I think I’m out of time, but I want a very quick and incredibly important question: The dog in the film, the border collie Snoop, plays a key role in the plot. He’s almost my favorite to win this year’s Palm Dog for best canine performer at Cannes. Was it a challenge to work with him and how did you fit him into this story?
Well, it was obvious to me from the beginning that Snoop was going to be her husband’s lookalike. He’s not just another character or an animal running around. In many ways, he represents this dead person, this absent person. There was a scene that we shot that we ended up editing from the final film where the dog vomits and it was very clear that it was the presence that 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 this time we were lucky enough to work with someone in the industry, 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 ensemble of the film as any of the other actors. In several scenes we are at the level of the dog; we see things from his perspective. He’s a character like any other, and that was very important to me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.