02 Nov 23
French filmmaker Justine Triet has made incredibly smart, funny, thrilling, and humane films her speciality, and Anatomy of a Fall may be her crowning achievement: the film won her the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, making her only the third woman to get the coveted prize.
Her two previous films, the sort-of romantic comedy In Bed with Victoria and the filmmaking melodrama Sibyl, featured Benedetta and Paris Memories actress Virginie Efira in two wonderfully complex roles, of an intelligence and richness worthy of her talent.
This time, it is Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller (who worked with Triet on Sibyl) who gets to shine in an even more mysterious part, as a woman who stands accused of her husband's murder. Not exactly a courtroom thriller or a family drama, Anatomy of a Fall is its own beast, a wholly original and captivating work of cinema.
How did you feel winning the Palme d'Or?
I'd never had such a physical sensation in my life, in terms of emotional intensity. It took me several weeks to understand that I'd really won. I had welcomed all of it in a very light-hearted way, but in reality my brain wasn't really taking it in. Also, being the third woman to win the Palme d'Or is a little surreal. It must be something to do with Js — Jane [Campion], Julia [Ducournau] and Justine! I think it's a gift, but it's also outside of me, meaning that I never made the film with that in mind. But it's wonderful.
What were some of your inspirations?
I rewatched a lot of courtroom dramas — Kramer vs. Kramer and Anatomy of a Murder — but also films by Richard Fleischer, like Compulsion. I don't love the film, but the scene of the closing argument was very useful to me. Orson Welles plays it with a very small voice — the opposite of the loud, virile voice that would take all the space.
Then there were two films which helped me more on an artistic level: Opening Night by John Cassavetes, for the colours and the directing, and Fleischer's The Boston Strangler. I wondered how he could shoot in a way that seemed so planned and precise, then there would be shots that seemed captured by chance, emerging out of nowhere, making this old film look so modern. It's this mix of extreme technical control and almost documentary-like spontaneity that I like, and which you can find in Cassavetes and Fleischer almost in the same way. People often say that Cassavetes shoots his films freestyle, a bit randomly, but in Opening Night, that is not at all the case. It's very surprising how controlled it is, while at the same time there's this madness that comes through.
Were there any more recent touchstones?
There was also David Fincher's Gone Girl, a film that has haunted me for ten years. I simultaneously loved and hated it, then loved it again but only partially — it's a film I converse with a lot. I was inspired by Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, especially the scene of the fight between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. I love the film, I find her role a lot more fragile than his. The scene of the argument in Anatomy of a Fall is almost in dialogue with that scene. I thought, "I will give this woman some things to answer with."
What informed the idea of the visually impaired son who discovers his father's corpse in the snow?
For me, there are two types of procedural drama. In the first, we begin with a lack, and we're going to fill those gaps by putting the puzzle back together. In the second, not all of the gaps will be filled in. Part of why we wanted to have this visually impaired character was to put him in the situation of the viewer. He lacks images, he lacks some elements — he did not see the crime. Like us, he does not know there are things he's missing.
What was it like to work with Sandra Hüller again?
I only saw Sandra for 12 days on Sibyl, so I felt like I hadn't been able to discover enough things about her. I had a huge artistic crush on her, so I was excited to work with her again. But when we did the first walk-throughs, where we just set up the camera and rehearsed the movements of the actors across the room, Sandra would always give an incredible performance right then; after that, I kept trying to make her do the same thing again, and it wouldn't work. So we had to change the way we worked: I told my team, let's forget about the image and the light, what counts is to adapt to her and the child, who couldn't do many takes either because children can only work limited hours. This is why there are images in the film where the light was not set up, there are defects to the image that I loved and amplified, like an imperfect photograph.
What were some of your formative film experiences?
The Mother and the Whore by Jean Eustache is one of the films that marked me the most and made me want to make films. So was Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. I'm almost ashamed of admitting this, but I like it less now. When I saw it at 22, though, I thought, "I want to make films." There's also a lesser known film by Eustache called Numéro Zero. It's just a woman drinking whisky and talking in a very dignified and powerful way about her life. It could be unbearably boring, but it's as breath-taking as a thriller.
I come from documentary cinema, so there were also films by Frederick Wiseman. Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke was a very important film for me; when I rewatched it, I was a little more uncomfortable about some of the things she'd done with him. But it was such an important film for me, I thought "wow, we can make films like this, where we really feel like we live with these people, where they speak to us." The films that have impressed me the most and made me want to do this, were those that made me feel like I was meeting a community of friends, of people who thought with me.
What other movies were significant for you?
Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life was also very important for me, but later on. When I met Arthur [Harari], my partner, it was the first film he showed me. We saw it together at the cinema and that was very powerful for me. It made me understand that you can tell several stories in a film then suddenly, the story of the Black woman, who at first only seems like a sidekick for the white woman, could take over. That film really impressed me with what can be done with storytelling, the power and intelligence of a story.
Finally, what are some of your cinema-going rituals? Where do you like to sit in an auditorium?
I worked as an usherette at a theatre, so I was used to sitting at the back and on the side. And that's stuck with me: I cannot sit in a good seat in a cinema. I'm always on the side and in the back, and people are always shocked by this. I need to control the room, to see if people are ok, if they're laughing or not — so it's terrible! I've had some awful experiences with my short films where people were laughing and making fun of me and I could see them perfectly, I was traumatised! It must be a masochistic side of me, I just like to stay at the back to see if everyone is having a good time.
Pick up a copy of Picturehouse Recommends at a Picturehouse Cinema near you, or become a Member.
Preview Screenings, including prerecorded Q&A Wednesday 8 November — Book Now
Dog Friendly Screening Sunday 12 November at Picturehouse Central — Book Now
Bradley Cooper directs and stars in a grand ode to Leonard Bernstein.
Twists and turns abound in this sinister Hitchcockian two-hander, starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of In This World, we sat down with the director to discuss how the film's radical approach brought an often-distant issue down to an audience’s eye level.
We've been wishing on a star, and our dream has come true. The next Disney classic is a century in the making.
The Souvenir's Joanna Hogg returns with an atmospheric ghost story, starring the formidable Tilda Swinton at the peak of her powers.