Justine Triet, a French director, reflects on the impact of certain films, stating that some can be simply interesting while others can leave a strong emotional impact. Her latest film, Anatomy of a Fall, has certainly affected viewers and her own life in a profound manner. In May, she went from being a respected up-and-coming filmmaker to a Cannes Palme d’Or recipient, sparking national debate and controversy.
Reworded: Anatomy of a Fall has achieved over one million ticket sales in the French cinema. The movie has captivated viewers with its portrayal of the marital tensions between two authors; the plot focuses on the legal investigation following the man’s fatal fall from their residence’s window.
Triet, 45, expresses surprise at the reaction during a Zoom interview in French. With her large 80s-inspired glasses, she speaks with speed and fervor, reminiscent of a Sorbonne professor making a passionate intervention at a high-stakes conference. She was struck by the fact that many individuals approached her to share their personal experiences, stating “That’s my life, I’ve been through that,” or “I’m currently going through it.”
The genre of courtroom dramas is known for being stiff and artificial, but Triet aimed to revolutionize it. She explains, “I wanted to create something very homemade and distinctly French. I wanted to delve deep into the complexities of relationships, but from the perspective of the justice system.” In Anatomy, the court case unravels the dynamics of writer Sandra’s household (played by the extraordinary German actress Sandra Hüller, known for her role in Toni Erdmann), her husband (Samuel Theis), and their remarkably perceptive 11-year-old son (impressive newcomer Milo Machado Graner). The plot becomes an examination of gender norms and the challenges of pursuing a creative career, with Sandra facing judgment not only as a murder suspect, but also as a woman, a mother, and a partner.
Triet’s lead characters – notably in her 2016 comedy In Bed With Victoria and its psychodrama follow-up Sibyl – have been intellectually complex women who make no bones about their powerful sexuality. In Anatomy, Sandra’s bisexuality becomes a key piece of evidence in court. “When they can’t find enough evidence against her, they look at her lifestyle. They end up dissecting her as someone who’s not afraid to act, let’s say, egotistically, as they see it.”
Triet is the third woman to receive the Palme d’Or award for her film, following in the footsteps of Jane Campion for The Piano and Julia Ducournau for Titane. J is an important letter to Triet, who jokes that it represents the names of the three female winners, as well as the name of Jane Fonda, who presented her with the award. However, after her win, Triet faced criticism and scrutiny, similar to the challenges faced by her protagonist. During her acceptance speech at Cannes, she used her platform to show support for protests against the Macron government and to voice her concerns about the government’s prioritization of profit over cultural preservation, which could jeopardize its support for national cinema. In response, France’s Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak, expressed anger through a tweet, stating that she was shocked by Triet’s comments and later referred to her as “ungracious and ungrateful”, considering the director’s own access to state funding. Other individuals, including the mayor of Cannes, also joined in criticizing Triet, with one even calling her a “spoiled child”.
Triet has no regrets about speaking up. Being a shy person, speaking up requires a lot of assertiveness. However, I stand by my words. I have achieved success thanks to a film financing system that is highly admired globally. My intention was to advocate for its protection and consider the future generations of filmmakers.
There are speculations that Triet’s honesty may have led to her being penalized, as Anatomy was not chosen as France’s submission for the Academy Awards. Instead, The Taste of Things (also known as The Pot-au-Feu) by Vietnamese-born director Tran Anh Hung was selected, which is a more conventional but still impressive film. Triet remains indifferent and states that she is not part of the committee and is not aware of the decision-making process. She also expresses admiration for Tran Anh Hung but admits to being greatly disappointed by the outcome.
Despite this, Triet shared a repost of someone’s critique of the Oscars decision on her Instagram page. She admitted to not reading the post before sharing it, and jokingly expressed embarrassment. However, she also mentioned receiving 6,000 messages in two days from people in France and other countries who viewed it as an injustice.
Some commentators may find it impolite to receive such remarks during awards season, especially from a winner of the Palme d’Or. However, for a long time, Triet was not a prominent figure in French film – she initially worked as a documentarian before transitioning to fiction. She recalls, “I didn’t feel like the French film industry welcomed me, as it seemed all the spots were already filled.”
She grew up in Paris, one of three children, and spent much of her childhood in a Buddhist community. “There would often be two, three hundred people around, from all over Europe. It was a very unusual upbringing, and very enriching.”
Triet initially had aspirations to become a painter and attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris while also working as a theatre usher. However, her interest shifted towards documentary filmmaking after being exposed to the works of renowned practitioners like Frederick Wiseman, Jean Rouch, and Shirley Clarke from France and the United States. She honed her skills in editing and self-taught the basics of film production, beginning with the purchase of a microphone based on advice she received that emphasized the importance of quality sound over visuals.
She started creating documentaries focusing on political topics, such as labor movements and a community center in São Paulo. This experience influenced her first fictional film, La Bataille de Solférino (Age of Panic, 2013), a comedic story about a journalist balancing her job and personal life during the 2012 presidential election. Triet incorporated undercover documentary footage into the film. Her following two movies, both featuring popular French actress Virginie Efira, were vastly different. In Bed With Victoria was a polished, humorous movie about sex and lifestyle, while Sibyl was a dramatic comedy about a therapist who becomes too involved in her patient’s personal affairs.
Sibyl and Anatomy were collaboratively written by Triet’s partner, Arthur Harari, who is also a well-regarded director and occasionally appears in her films. They reside in Paris with their two daughters. Triet refutes any suggestion that the familial struggles portrayed in Anatomy reflect her personal life, stating, “We are not narcissistic enough to believe it is about us.” When I bring up Vanity Fair’s recent feature on her and Harari as the emerging “power couple” of French cinema, she reacts with surprise and disbelief.
“I strongly dislike that idea! The concept of being in a couple is something I cannot tolerate. I believe it is not natural to live as a couple, and I am always finding new ways to live my life. The idea of being with a man, living together, and having children… We are not interested in conforming to the traditional “success story”,” she expressed, switching back to English and exclaiming, “What a nightmare!” However, she clarifies that she and Harari have no intentions of collaborating on another project.
Although Anatomy of a Fall is a formidable film, it is challenging to pinpoint the type of director Triet is. Despite consistently exploring feminist themes, her films are vastly diverse. Sandra Hüller, the star of Anatomy and also featured in Sibyl, describes Triet as having an overwhelming intelligence. However, since their previous collaboration, Hüller notes that Triet has become more relaxed and intrigued by spontaneous events. Hüller states that Triet’s most common direction was to make the scene less perfect and more chaotic.
Similar to the protagonist in Anatomy, Triet appears fated to confuse those in her presence – particularly critics who attempt to categorize her. However, she does adhere to one principle. “I resonate with François Truffaut’s words: ‘Always make each film against your last one.’ This does not mean you dislike the previous one – it is simply about exploring something new.”
The film Anatomy of a Fall will be released in theaters in the United Kingdom on November 10th.