‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Director Justine Triet on Challenging Genre Conventions

Article Image
Photo Source: Courtesy NEON/Cinetic Media

​​Every aspect of Justine Triet’s French courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall” has a purpose, from the presence of guide dog Snoop (played by border collie Messi in a star-making performance) to the instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” that plays over one of the film’s tensest moments. And then there’s Swann Arlaud’s floppy hair, which he grew out at Triet’s request to play lawyer Vincent Renzi. The co-writer–director jokes that she was being a “control freak,” but she knew she wanted to make the actor into a heartthrob.

Her meticulous attention to detail is apparent throughout this genre-defying drama. The film follows Sandra Voyter (a perfectly steely Sandra Hüller), the prime suspect in her husband, Samuel’s (Samuel Theis), murder; and their blind son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who’s the only potential witness to the crime. It’s a thrilling mystery that challenges both the characters and the audience to piece the puzzle together. 

“Anatomy of a Fall” has garnered five Oscar nominations, including directing and screenplay for Triet, lead actress for Hüller, and best picture.

Though the film is both a legal thriller and a domestic drama, it avoids conforming to the expectations of either genre. 

“We didn’t want to play the game of the genre movie at 100%, because I think a lot of people are doing the same thing and just copying another movie,” Triet says. “What I’m drawn to as a filmmaker is the hyperrealism of a quasi-documentary approach that has these documentary-like outbursts that…mix with the much more tailored, anticipated register of a very stylized genre.”

That comes across in everything from tense courtroom exchanges to Sandra’s epic fights with her husband to scenes of domestic life gone awry. The family’s spectacular house, from whose top-floor window Samuel plunges to his death, evokes a Hitchcockian labyrinth of secrets and lies. 

When she was penning the script alongside Arthur Harari, Triet knew that it was incredibly important to get that particular setting right. “I’m obsessed [with] the house [as] a character; it was an obsession in the writing process. And, of course, we were very conscious about it,” she says. “It was complicated to find this house, because in the writing process, we draw everything. It was impossible to communicate without drawing the house and to communicate the plot details without drawing out the different hypotheses.”

It was also vital to find the right actor to portray Daniel, a young boy who comes to hold ultimate power over his mother’s fate. Triet and casting director Cynthia Arra’s initial search focused on finding a blind performer who could embody the character’s maturity. When that proved challenging, they opened up the auditions to all child actors; that was how they came to find Machado Graner. 

Anatomy of a Fall

Triet recalls that his voice was what set him apart. “I said, ‘This kid is not talking the same way compared to the others.’ We were very lucky because he was very close to his uncle, who is blind; so he knew a lot of things about blind people. He worked a lot to just gain [insight into his] character. He has a very striking temperament for a child, and his sensibility is extremely outward-focused.” 

Ultimately, the brilliance of “Anatomy of a Fall” lies in Triet and Harari’s choice to leave the question of Sandra’s guilt or innocence unaswered, giving viewers a perfect cocktail-party conversation starter: Did she do it? 

Triet’s prompts to her cast further added to the complexity of the narrative. She instructed Hüller to play innocent, which the director readily admits was “very sneaky,” since it left her lead actor without concrete answers; but the choice ultimately added layers to Hüller’s performance. Similarly, she told Arlaud that Vincent was previously in love with Sandra, which forced the actor to balance his character’s past feelings with his role as her lawyer. Triet said this was helpful because actors want to “defend their part.” 

These ambiguities allowed the director to further muddle genre conventions. Sandra is as much on trial for the state of her marriage, her ambition, and her bisexuality as she is for the murder of her husband. 

“[I told Hüller,] ‘Don’t do some duplicity thing.’ In a lot of movies, you have…a woman who is like: I’m like this, but at the same time, I’m like that; but I could be like this. It’s an old-fashioned way of doing this kind of character. So I asked for her to just play it like a documentary,” Triet explains. 

“She’s [isn’t] trying to seduce the audience in the cinema, the audience at her trial, her lawyer, or the jury. That’s the most specific thing about her…. Nothing in her, despite the situation she’s in, is edging towards seduction of any kind. She’s not the perfect victim.”

Triet’s refreshing approach to directing extends to her advice for aspiring filmmakers. “[Don’t] pretend to be another person. You see some directors who are not so aware of what they really want to say, really want to do.” 

She also underscores the importance of finding the right collaborators for your project. “To create a good team is the most complicated thing in the world. When you’re doing movies, you cannot do everything by yourself, so you have to be really well-surrounded.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of Backstage Magazine.

More From Meet The Maker


More From Directing

More From Screenwriter

Now Trending