By Aurélie Godet.
Published in Cinema Scope #95 (Summer 2023).
Have you ever sat in front of a large poster depicting the human body without its skin? One muscle gets entangled into another, the precision and complexity of their web apparent in the areas that are most crucial for movement, but with the face on top of this transparent carcass looking very much alive. One can imagine that Justine Triet, the third female director to receive a Palme d’Or, would be animated rather than revulsed by such a vision. Anatomy of a Fall is her fourth feature, and, like all of her work, it shows a keen interest in the chaos of interwoven movements both toward and away from others that humans somehow revel in testing and rearranging, as if unable to figure out the big picture—and in spite of the confusion they keep inflicting on themselves. Never before, though, has Trier displayed such analytical rigour in laying out the ramifications of her premise and reassembling them in a harmonious exposé.
A binational family, like so many in Europe—German mother, French father, and 11-year-old son—lives high in the French Alps where the man grew up. One day, the woman, a successful writer named Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), welcomes a student who wants to interview her for a thesis on her work, but stops the interview because of the deafening instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” being played on a loop by her husband, who is busy invisibly restoring the attic. The couple’s son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who is visually impaired but clearly autonomous in this environment, goes out for a walk with his dog Snoop. When he returns to the chalet, he finds his father on the snowy ground, dead, and screams for his mother, who rushes to call emergency services, visibly shaken. Was it an accident, a suicide, or a murder?
Triet, who co-wrote the screenplay with her partner, writer-director Arthur Harari, goes into detail of what each hypothesis would imply via her courtroom-genre template, which provides the ideal space for an investigative approach to the mysteries of marriage and parenthood. The notion of truth, which the autopsy does not reveal, is central, and Triet proceeds to dissect and study it with all the tools available. Although she touches on the idea that people look for truth in different places, she ultimately avoids (thanks to a fresh form of the Pascalian wager) the dangerous temptation to conclude that it’s all relative. Instead, the questions she asks take a step back: what space is there for one’s own truth within a couple? Within a family? The response is complicated by the betrayal that translation can bring, as this particular family’s members speak to each other in a foreign language: English.
Triet is a flag bearer for a modern, cinephilic generation, well-travelled and able to direct French actors to speak English in a way that doesn’t sound comical, so that an attorney can rebound, in French, to the particular choice of a word in English—that is, if they are good at their job. It’s not surprising to hear Hüller talk of the collaborative work process on the film’s set, as Triet clearly surrounds herself with people she wants to listen to (including theatre writer-director Wajdi Mouawad as a shrink, and filmmaker Samuel Theis as the husband). And, like her protagonist, Triet draws ideas from the real world (and keeps her lead actors’ names) before “covering up her tracks so that fiction destroys reality.”
During the trial, the spectacular insertion of an audio recording of an argument, with its crescendo towards a brutal standoff, temporarily appears to bring everyone closer to that elusive truth, even as what we hear is a couple who shout themselves further and further away from clarity. This ability to rewind and replay a significant moment of the couple’s last days may delight the annoyingly ruthless prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz), but it only further complicates discussions on the uniformity of truth. Triet and Harari tell us that truth is the result of a progressive, analytical process that requires the combined effort of self-knowledge, listening, cross-checking, and the ability to admit you were wrong—and also that that process may be a collective one. This is a rather complete course in how to direct oneself through a tangled web of conflicting information, which the film’s preteen character (perhaps thanks to the failing of one of his senses) manages to teach himself. “I must understand,” says Daniel, whose point of view becomes dominant in the film’s crucial last act, and who singlehandedly redefines the process of justice.
The Palme d’Or for Anatomy of a Fall happens to be the beautiful child of another loving but dysfunctional couple: the marriage between France’s art-house sector and the public institutions that regulate the industry. Triet’s acceptance speech at Cannes, which morphed into a political statement about creative diversity and the Macron government’s authoritarian ways, was brave, maybe reckless, but not exactly new. It was consistent with the demanding attitude that resulted in the building and safeguarding of an efficient financing system, but one that has film professionals regularly reminded of its institutional hierarchy and the relationship’s mutual benefits, renegotiating its terms so as to adapt to the times and making sure the money in the joint account is spent in ways that both sides can agree upon.
The main originality of the French system—an essential detail forgotten by the herds (including Cannes’ mayor) who called Triet a spoiled and ungrateful child of the Parisian cultural bourgeoisie—is the fact that direct support from the state’s budget is practically non-existent. Some of it is devolved to regional governments, who in return for their contribution see a large chunk of production spending enter the local economy. French cinema’s financial support system is mostly internal and circular, fed by contributions from all involved in the distribution of films: theatres, television channels, and more recently streamers, who have to invest 20% of their French revenues into local production.
The Centre national du cinéma (CNC), which was created in 1946, always stipulated clearly that the aim of its main financing devices, such as the avance sur recettes (a loan to be reimbursed if the film generates profits), is to foster the creative landscape’s renewal by encouraging the production of first features, and to support cinema that challenges market standards. This idea to protect artistic creation from the winner-take-all logic of the industry is what is called the exception culturelle: it’s based on the whole sector imposing a minimum of solidarity on itself and explains the plethora of French film production, with the understanding that some of that output will be brilliant and define the future of cinema. It is also, of course, constantly challenged by people who accuse the industry of producing quantity over quality, meaning culture requires defense attorneys who can agree that a high number of releases makes it difficult to emerge from the pack, but also know that true profitability is not about playing it safe.
Triet visibly read the prepared political part of her speech, which echoed throughout France with her Palme d’Or. Her sincerity came through when she expressed solidarity with protesters of social reforms, and with young filmmakers who are now struggling to jumpstart their career the way she was allowed to. Sadly, the reaction to her speech showed a combined effect of class resentment—fed by the widening division between capitalism’s winners and losers and exploited by demagogues—the view of culture as “non-essential” throughout the pandemic, and a lowering of standards worsened by a uniformization of the offerings on streaming platforms, which all explain the worrying rejection of artists as “privileged bourgeois.”
The contrast between the subtlety and complexity of Triet and Harari’s examination of the notion of truth and the shortcuts of thought and emotion fired at the filmmaker on social networks is striking, and it is unfortunately amplified by politicians’ expressions of vexation on those same platforms. There comes a moment in spousal strife when defensive postures and the shadow of mistrust blur views so badly that you don’t know if or when you’re crossing the point of no return. But when you’ve forgotten why you chose each other in the first place, it’s too late. It’s healthy to speak up when something feels wrong and the relationship can still be salvaged, which is exactly what Triet has done.
Anatomy of a Fall, Europe, Justine Triet, Milo Machado Graner