It's been more than four months since filmmaker Justine Triet won the Palme d'Or, and she still can't quite believe it. Each of the French writer-director's four feature efforts thus far have debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, but only her most recent release — the courtroom thriller Anatomy of a Fall — took home the top prize. "It's still very blurry," Triet says now.
"I have a very, very beautiful memory of not understanding what was happening to me, of not having anticipated it at all," the filmmaker recalls via a translator, "and the intense joy and awareness that I was probably going through one of the most emotionally intense moments in my life."
Triet became the third woman to win the top honor at Cannes; Jane Campion won in 1993 for The Piano and Julia Ducournau took the prize in 2021 for Titane. "There's been something like 80 Palmes altogether and only three women," she notes. "Hopefully it's an encouragement to other women filmmakers. There's always hope."
"And maybe there's something with the first name starting with J," Triet adds, switching from French to English. "It's just for J people — Jane and Julia." And now Justine. "And Jane Fonda gave me the prize. So..."
Anatomy of a Fall, which Triet wrote with Arthur Harari — himself the filmmaker behind Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle and Triet's real-life spouse — centers on married writers Sandra and Samuel (played by Sandra Hüller and Samuel Theis, respectively). When Samuel is found dead, as a result of the titular fall, both Sandra and the couple's strained marriage are put on trial. Was his untimely demise an accident? Was it suicide? Or was he killed?
"The couple was really the matrix of this film, and the idea was really to go in there, and almost like a finger, push down, and down, and down, and probe how deep we could go, to go as far as possible," Triet explains. "And the judicial system became the tool for the deepest incision we could make into the mind of that woman and their relationship."
A.frame: You've said this is the most intimate film you've ever written. What made it feel so personal?
What is very intimate to me is this mother-child dynamic at play — being a mother and having been a child — and how we speak to children, what we say to them, what we don't say to them, what they inevitably guess anyway, and this question of, who is my mother? It's something that I thought about in terms of my own children, who I know don't know everything about me, and also my mother, who was a riddle to me for a very long time. So, this attempt at deciphering the maternal figure is very much at the core of this.
Writing this movie, you're digging into the complexities and messiness of a marriage, not just with your writing partner but your life partner. What was that experience like?
It was a really wonderful experience, because of course, Arthur is a director to begin with, and so to be able to share that creative process with him was very special — to dive together into what togetherness means and the darkest aspects of it. Especially because it was after the Me Too movement, and public discourse is so rife with questions of manhood and womanhood and how we live together and what kind of life is possible. A conscious and verbalized reinvention of that togetherness was occurring. So for us, it was very natural to begin that conversation together. That being said, the film, of course, is very far from our life. He's still alive. [Laughs]
You worked with Sandra on 2019's Sibyl and wrote this role for her. As you were writing this character, were there things you wanted to capitalize on that you know she excels at as an actor? Or conversely, ways in which you wanted to challenge her or sides of her that you hadn't seen her reveal yet?
What I knew Sandra was capable of and that I was looking for in writing this character — who is quite a tough, hard character — is it was very reassuring to know that she was going to be the one in care of it, because I profoundly believe in the impressibility that attracted me to her. Also because of the length of the film, I find her interesting enough to be able to talk about her for two and a half hours in a movie. [Laughs] We don't actually get bored. There's its elusiveness, I believe. I don't know who she is. Even when I see it, I think, it's very complex. So, if there's one thing that was capitalized upon, it's this captivating feature that she has, where even other actors that I like a lot, I've rarely found myself in such constant surprise watching them act.
It's hard to say what she hasn't done before, because I haven't seen her at the theater — where I'm sure she's incredible — and I haven't seen all of the films, but I do think that I had never seen her get to an emotional tipping point where she's so wrangled and mistreated, and she abandons herself to certain emotional states. And her ability to fluctuate between that and more controlled states was something that I was looking forward to exploring.
Once Sandra signed on, was there ever a conversation about changing the character's name?
This is not something that I thought about at all, but I was very, very attached to that being the name. I couldn't have let go of it. Not that she is herself; of course, it's a character. But it was so much written for her that another name wouldn't have made sense creatively.
This movie demands a lot from Sandra. On those most demanding days, what did you need from Sandra and what did you feel she needed from you in order to get through the day and get the performance you needed?
It's difficult to separate what I needed from her and what she needed from me, because of the dynamic relationship there. Definitely, it's all about the trust that we had for each other. One thing that I can think of was that sometimes she was afraid of crying too much — that she had made her character too tearful — because I tend to look for strong vulnerabilities. To mediate that, we would look between different tonalities of that vulnerability, to go to lighter and then stronger things. In the editing, I would sometimes come back to the stronger things to feel that that territory was possible. My usual way of working is to begin with the sort of most vulnerable, and then to go back up from there.
When you were at Cannes, The Zone of Interest premiered too, and Sandra got raves for that. Of course, you're busy enough when you have a movie at a festival, but did you get a chance to see her in that while you were there?
Yes, yes. It was my first night in Cannes, and I saw it. I was very impressed by the movie. Because it was so different from mine, and so it was amazing to discover it.
Since Cannes, you've gotten to take Anatomy of a Fall to a number of international festivals. Has the film played differently based on where in the world you are?
It's hard to say. I don't think I've gotten enough sort of ethnographic scope to realize what the differences would be, but the similarities are glaring. The way that people appropriate the questions around this thing that nobody really takes for granted, which is the question of togetherness and living together and being together, whether in a heterosexual or homosexual or even a kinship kind of togetherness. The question of the being together and the way that that's worked out is what I've gotten most echoes from. I'm sure that there'll be many different perspectives on this question from country to country, but I haven't yet seen them. [Laughs] I've mostly been in Spain, America, and France, and maybe these are somehow culturally still similar enough that I haven't seen those.
By John Boone