If it is possible to feel bad for a Palme d’Or-winning director whose new movie is the toast of the fall festival circuit, then thoughts and prayers to Justine Triet, who likely hasn’t gone a single interview without being asked just how the 50 Cent song P.I.M.P. ended up playing a central role in her prestige French legal drama.
An intensely ear-wormy instrumental version of the Fiddy song soundtracks a crucial scene in Triet’s new film, a domestic and legal guessing game that follows a bestselling German novelist named Sandra (Sandra Huller) who is arrested for the murder of her French husband. And once that case makes it to trial, P.I.M.P. is once again played for the benefit of the court. Over and over again.
So while Anatomy of a Fall is examining many deep, complex issues – the trust between a husband and wife, the faulty memories of loved ones, the idiosyncrasies of French justice – it is difficult to not immediately grill Triet on how a ridiculous track from a cheesy American hip-hop star ended up in one of the most acclaimed art-house dramas of the year.
Turns out: it was all Dolly Parton’s fault.
“The song was originally supposed to be Jolene, but they refused to let us use it!” Triet said with a laugh during her visit to the Toronto International Film Festival last month. “But I had this 50 Cent music on my computer, and I think it was the title I liked the most at first. There was something very funny about using it in such a difficult scene. It’s always classical music used in those scenes. I wanted to do something different.”
Ahead of the film’s Canadian release this Friday, The Globe and Mail sat down with Triet to talk – sometimes through the aid of a translator – about one of the more “different” films of the fall season, above and beyond the 50 Cent factor.
The film starts off with an interview between Sandra and a graduate student. Your two previous films, In Bed with Victoria and Sibyl, both had scenes inside the offices of shrinks. How much of your work is preparation to be interrogated yourself by journalists?
[Laughs] I think I’m very different from the characters I’ve drawn. Of course, this is a portrait of a writer, yes, but she’s not me: her isolation from urban centres, her troubled marriage. What I do feel close to, though, is Sandra’s relationship to autofiction – writers writing about their own lives, in a way. I think audiences are thirsty for that kind of thing. Although for me it’s a dramaturgical trap.
Sandra is a German actress who speaks limited French, which plays into the story once her character is thrust into the French judicial system. Was the idea of that language barrier something you wanted to tackle from the scripting stage?
Absolutely. If Sandra had refused, we would’ve reached out to other non-French actresses, because language is a central part of the film. The state of being misunderstood, especially amongst couples. The reality that can then be reappropriated.
North American audiences get a fascinating look at French trials here, which allow for much more crosstalk than a typical American courtroom. It also reminded me of another recent French film, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, which found similar tension in the peculiarities of the courtroom system.
In France, we have a much more anarchic method, and the judge doesn’t serve as the kind of orchestral composer position. So it becomes this dramaturgical match, where there’s this tension between prosecution and defence without having to go through the relay. That’s more interesting for me, for the architecture of the drama.
The film is a box-office hit in France, which is welcome news given that it’s a complex two-and-a-half-hour courtroom drama.
It’s amazing because when I was making this, I thought I’d made the most radical movie ever. Nobody is going to see this. I’ll have to make a TV show to make money afterward. Every time I make a movie, it doesn’t succeed. And it’s funny, this is the opposite. I can’t explain it.
So you no longer have to make a TV series, then.
Maybe. If I do, it’ll be a very long thing. The only thing that you can do in TV is really spend time with the characters. There’s much more freedom with making movies. When you work with the streaming platforms, even when I find there’s a beautiful movie or TV show there, I find that even something like the sound design is always bigger. You have to be moved here! You have to laugh here! With streamers, only big people like Scorsese get to do what they want.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Anatomy of a Fall
Directed by Justine Triet
Written by Justine Triet and Arthur Harari
Starring Sandra Huller, Swann Arlaud and Samuel Theis
Classification 14A; 152 minutes
Opens in select theatres Oct. 20
In Justine Triet’s new film, the metaphors drop as hard and fast as the body at the centre of the legal drama. As the French filmmaker traces the court case of wife/successful novelist Sandra (Sandra Huller) accused of killing her husband/struggling novelist Samuel (Samuel Theis), Anatomy of a Fall layers on the “aha” symbolism. The death occurs at an isolated cabin, as rickety and chilly as the couple’s marriage. The two suffer a language barrier – she’s German, he’s French, they tend to communicate in English – that highlights their communication issues. And the only witness to Samuel’s death? That would be the couple’s young son, who is – dun dun dunnn! – partially blind.
Still, these narrative and thematic conveniences don’t get in the way of a phenomenal lead performance from Huller (Toni Erdmann), who anchors the film’s overly engineered air of ambiguity. As a wife who refuses to concede an argument, a mother who takes pains to protect her son, and an artist who craves success above seemingly everything else, Huller is asked to play a wonderful mess of contradictions – and the actress pulls off the job marvellously, all steel nerves and darting eyes.
Not infrequently, Triet’s script – co-written with Arthur Harari, the director’s own partner (another dun dun dunnn moment, perhaps) – rises to the inventiveness and commitment of the actress who has been asked to bring it to life. But ultimately, the film settles into a comfortable groove that imagines Law & Order: Paris played at 0.5 speed. Huller’s searing turn might have tilted this past summer’s Cannes jury into awarding Anatomy of a Fall the festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or. But even a cursory cross-examination reveals some holes in Triet’s story. B.H.