Warning: This article discusses the ending of “Anatomy of a Fall.”
“Anatomy of a Fall,” the new French mystery film, takes its title directly from “Anatomy of a Murder,” Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama starring Jimmy Stewart. Director Justine Triet saw the Preminger classic about a decade ago and kept the film in her mind as she was developing her own modern tale of intrigue, secrets, and marriage on trial.
And similar to the 1959 movie, “Anatomy of a Fall” does come to a conclusion, in a way, at least in the courtroom. A verdict is delivered. The Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film ends with the character of Sandra (Sandra Hüller) being acquitted for the murder of her husband. At the movie’s start, he dies off-screen after plunging from a balcony at the chalet where they live with their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner).
But Sandra’s actual guilt or innocence remains an open question. There is no precise flashback to the moment of her husband’s death. She maintains that she did not kill him. But she’s also stretched the truth in an effort to appear innocent. Neon, the film’s distributor, is clearly keyed into the question, having launched a survey website called Did She Do It and advertising the film this way in Los Angeles (via X account JillianChili).
In a recent conversation with TheWrap, Triet (who cowrote the film with her partner Arthur Harari) addressed the film’s conclusion. And also sought to assure readers that Messi, the movie’s star dog who appears as a border collie named Snoop, was totally fine despite a crucial late scene in which he’s ailing.
TheWrap: I’ve been thinking and talking about the film a lot. My own theory is that Sandra is innocent, but her husband designed his suicide to implicate her.
Justine Triet: Ah, really? You mean he left clues to put his wife in a bad situation?
Well, it’s possible.
Your movie is not a whodunit in the classic sense and I appreciate that we don’t get a solid answer about Sandra. But what were you thinking about when you mapped out the film’s ending?
It took a lot of time to think about it. During the writing process, we had so many different ideas for the ending. At the beginning, we thought there should be a big twist at the very end. We thought and thought about that. And we did have some ideas of a plot twist. But let me tell you, it was not good. It didn’t work.
Can you remember any of those other ideas?
Yeah, I remember there was something where the son was talking about how he could recognize a place in the house because of the scratches on the wall. I can’t remember exactly, but there was a twist where he explicated some fact through touching a scratch. But it was old-fashioned. I think it would have been very deceptive for everyone. It didn’t feel right.
There were many discussion between Arthur and I to get into that thing of how to end the film. With us saying, “OK, as spectators, we don’t like when there’s some twist that doesn’t feel right.”
Ultimately, the son Daniel is still at the center of the question. It’s a question of this boy, who doesn’t know if his mother is a murderer or not. Can he believe her? Should he believe her? When we had that breakthrough, then we could say, “Our movie is this. This is the vision.” But it’s still complicated.
There is a scene where Daniel deliberately poisons his dog with Aspirin, in order to find out if the dog might have ingested it during a previous suicide attempt by his dad. It’s very important in the film. But I wanted to ask about filming that.
It was the most difficult scene in the movie, especially for the actor and the crew. The dog had been trained how to look a certain way so that he appeared to be sick. The dog’s vomit is all fake and we added it in post-production with CGI.
The dog was really amazing. But despite the very good training, a dog will still react to heightened emotional states in humans. So how do we get the kid to act in the way we need without having the dog leap up to help the distressed child? So that is what the training was for.
And the dog was actually not in pain?
No, no, of course not. On set, at all times, there was a big team for the dog. Everyone was so careful with dog, all the time. He’s the mascot of our movie. And I love him. He’s a border collie and we chose him because of his energy.
Also, the dog is included in the very final image in the film, which shows Sandra cuddling with Snoop in bed. What were you thinking about when you conceived that shot?
At the end, she’s very lonely. She needs the dog. Her son and her, they hug each other, but there are things that they will have to deal with over a long period of time in the future. But with the dog, it’s not so complicated. He just loves her. I wanted that. We found this poetic ending, without making it too dramatic, where the dog would arrive and show this wonderful capacity to be just a dog. But then in some ways, the dog is also a spectre and also the eyes of Daniel. All these things.
You’ve mentioned that you were fascinated by the Amanda Knox trial.
And O.J. Simpson. I was obsessed with the idea of how someone manages their life after a verdict. A happy verdict for them, let’s say. An acquittal, in the case of the movie, for Sandra. On one hand, she should celebrate this but on the other hand, I don’t know. What is going on after the happy ending? In reality, that’s a question. This woman, she doesn’t want to go home. She doesn’t want to face her child because it is not finished. The child did save her, in a way, but how do they actually feel about each other?
And the verdict is near the end of the film, but you still had a lot of choices to make about what to show in the final ten minutes.
Oh, yeah. A lot. Finding the ending was all about finding the heart of the film. It was about finding what deep questions of the entire intrigue were there. When we found this ending, the question that emerged and re-emerged, from all the bits that had been parsed out, was the question of doubt. Doubt and indecision and what you do with incertitude.
Now, that was not the question that drove the script all the time. Before, as I said, we had much more efficient and twist-based ideas and more classical, formal gestures. But finding, in the end, this place of doubt was the moment that we knew we’d found the ending. And it’s articulated in that scene between the kid and his auxiliary guardian. The question of choice, plain and simple.
But nonetheless, you probably have had many people come up to you and they want to know if Sandra is guilty or innocent?
Yeah, of course. It happens.
What do you say?
Well, what can I say? It’s the same thing as in life. Who knows the real truth? To me, I think maybe that Sandra could be not guilty of murder but responsible for pushing him to commit suicide. Maybe? It’s a question of: What are we all responsible for in our lives? The film is opening so many other doors. And in a way, I think, well, she lied two times in the movie. So maybe we can cast doubt on her and say, “Hmm, is it possible she did do it?” But I don’t want to say that.
No. I don’t want to spoil the movie.