I have had mixed feelings about Justine Triet’s previous works, but her recent film in the Cannes competition is a compelling courtroom drama with a mysterious title and ending. It brought to mind films like Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution and the 90s TV show Murder One by Steven Bochco, which are often overlooked but worth revisiting.
Sandra Hüller portrays Sandra, a successful and stylish writer (a common character in French cinema). She was born in Germany but currently resides in a beautiful chalet in the French Alps with her French husband Samuel Theis, a former academic and aspiring writer who is currently facing a career slump and creative block. In order to improve their financial situation, Samuel is working on turning their chalet into an Airbnb, often making loud noises with his saw and hammer while trying to fix it up. As a result, Sandra’s attempt at giving an interview is interrupted and she decides to take a nap while their son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) takes their dog Snoop for a walk.
Upon his return, the protagonist finds his father’s lifeless body on the snowy ground outside the chalet, with a brutal wound on his head. The cause of his death is uncertain – was it a fall from the top window, an impact on the way down, or foul play? Unfortunately, the protagonist, Daniel, is an unreliable witness due to his blindness, a result of an accident that his mother Sandra blamed on his caretaker Samuel. This accident caused Samuel to spiral into anger and resentment towards Sandra for her infidelity and alleged plagiarism of his ideas. Sandra may also hold resentment towards Samuel for their son’s condition. Soon, the police arrest Sandra for murder and she hires a lawyer who may have romantic feelings for her. However, the fate of Sandra lies in the hands of her blind son, who may not have seen anything but could potentially remember something at any moment.
Hüller’s calm directness as an actor is what gives the film its texture, substance and emotional force. She anchors it in a kind of accessible reality: we naturally sympathise with her, and yet Triet shows us that she is capable of transparent lies, lies which are almost credible because Hüller is such a plausible personality. The men that surround her seem to be over-emotional, more emotional than her — odd, as she is the one facing a prison sentence.
The movie follows a unique approach to drama, focusing on forensic investigation. We witness the body being examined and the defense team strangely recreating the event, using a dummy dropped from a window to determine Sandra’s guilt based on the trajectory and blood splatters. The film does not give obvious hints or dramatic plot twists, but maintains a detached tone, leaving us to question Sandra’s innocence until the very end. It’s a subtle and contemplative drama, yet intellectually stimulating.