Misinterpretations and mistranslations are rife in Justine Triet’s deliberately ambiguous Palme d’Or winner, where our perception of events constantly shifts as characters play language games, writes Lillian Crawford.
Anatomy of a Fall is punctuated by the broken sound of Chopin’s fourth prelude. The piece descends down the melody line, with disruption, repetition and frustration, only resolving in the final bars towards an E-minor chord. It is a piece about death and despair, and the impossibility of knowing what is to come. The prelude is practised by young Daniel Maleski (Milo Machado-Graner) as he learns to play the piano, sometimes with the lending hand of his mother, the novelist Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller). It is an elegant and simple device to reflect the fractured ebbs and flows of the film, including the openness of its last notes.
Every person who listens to a Chopin prelude will form a different interpretation. We each experience varying synaesthetic images and emotions when listening to music, and so too with language. Daniel’s haphazard tinkering with Chopin is not dissimilar to his mother’s attempts to speak French: she, like Hüller, is German, has lived in London, and is now in a chalet in the mountains of Grenoble. Her placement in France – the homeland of her husband Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) – is a compromise fraught with conflict. Her reluctance to learn its language is shown to be a resistance to the permanence of life there. This is taken to an extreme when Daniel comes home from walking his dog Snoop to discover his father dead outside the house, leaving the question of whether he fell, jumped or Sandra murdered him, which drives the film.
Justine Triet wrote Anatomy of a Fall with her partner Arthur Harari from an idea that developed from the courtroom scenes in her 2016 film In Bed with Victoria. It is a dissection of language and misinterpretation, of how words change and develop meaning through varying contexts, and the impact it can have on our lives. They wrote the script with Hüller in mind for Sandra, having worked with her briefly on Sibyl in 2019. Hüller assumed that she would be speaking French in the film, and was surprised to be told that her character largely uses English, creating a layered complexity of the phrases she elects to use. When the right word cannot be found in one language, she flips over into another, albeit affecting the understanding of the listener – when she speaks in English during her trial, a translator echoes her words in French through an earpiece. But is the meaning the same?
It is a similar theme to Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (2022), another French legal drama, which looks at the treatment of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), after she is charged with killing her daughter. During her trial, it is revealed that Laurence has written a thesis on Wittgenstein, bringing to the fore the philosopher’s concept of ‘language games’. An idea introduced in Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein sought ‘to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life’, which involves some experimentation, or gameplay, on the part of the speaker as they find the varying meanings of words and phrases. For example, ‘Water!’ can be read as an exclamation, an order, the answer to a question, and so on.
The immeasurable subtlety of shifts in interpretation is at the core of both Saint Omer and Anatomy of a Fall. Through various examples, witnesses, analysts, experts, with all their respective biases, every apparently conclusive statement or observation is shown to have its equally conclusive and convincing opposite. This is even true of more tangible evidence than words alone – one blood-spatter analyst shows that the formation of three blood stains proves that Sandra killed her husband, another can demonstrate that it proves her innocence.
Anatomy of a Fall is an extended language game. Triet and Harari use their script to play with the audience’s shifting reading of what they are being shown, and force us to question all apparent objectivity. The most powerful demonstration of this is an audio recording of a fight between Sandra and Samuel the day before his death, which we hear in the courtroom along with an expert’s analysis of what the various sounds depict. Triet then shows the scene in flashback, the only such moment in the film, which displays an alternative reality to what we are told we just heard.
Then Triet asks if we can believe what we see. Daniel is partially blind, and much of the film is shown from his perspective. Like his learning of the piano, he has had to develop a keen sense of hearing, called into question by his own changing testimony and belief in his mother’s innocence. Daniel initially says he heard his parents talking outside the house, but through re-enactment discovers this was not possible, and changes his statement. The judge does not wish for him to witness the trial, as it will be sensitive and may affect his judgement, but as he so eloquently argues, if he does not listen then it will haunt him for the rest of his life. At the end of the trial, all that matters is how Daniel perceives the mother he has to go on living with.
Daniel is too young to have read his mother’s novels. An excerpt from one is read aloud during the trial by Antoine Reinartz’s prosecution barrister, which he claims offers some insight into how Sandra’s mind works. Her defence immediately rejects the use of fiction as evidence, pointing out that Stephen King is not a serial killer, but it is an interesting question as to how much of ourselves artists put into their stories. It is a theme that runs through all of Triet’s films – In Bed with Victoria includes a trial about the apparently libellous depiction of a woman in her ex’s writing, and Sibyl is about a psychotherapist-cum-writer who draws inspiration from her obsession with a patient. How much are we to read Triet’s own life and relationship with Harari in the film? They appear to be teasing us, although as Triet has said, even she does not know if Sandra actually did it.
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