The true-crime genre gets a sharp, nuanced and decidedly feminist update The anatomy of a trapthe new feature from French director Justine Triet, which wowed critics and audiences alike at its world premiere at the Cannes competition on Monday.
The film stars German actress Sandra Hüller, famous for her performance in the 2016 Oscar nominee Tony Erdman and who had a supporting role in Triet’s 2019 drama Sibyl – as Sandra Voyter, a successful German novelist on trial in France for the murder of her French, much less successful writer, husband Samuel (Samuel Theis). The only witness to the death was the couple’s 11-year-old blind son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner).
The setup seems to point to a “has she or hasn’t” mystery thriller, similar to Basic instinct or HBOs The stairsbut Triet is less interested in a whodunit than questioning the justice system because of the use of narrative fictions—when there are no facts, the prosecution invents fantasies about motives—and the conservative, often sexist assumptions underlying those stories .
Neon picked up the film for North America shortly after its Cannes premiere.
Trie spoke The Hollywood Reporter about her fascination with true crime stories, how she created the film’s central role for Hüller, and the thin line between reality and fiction, both on screen and in court.
Sandra Hüller is great in this movie. Did you make the role with her in mind?
Yes. I met Sandra 10 years ago when she presented me with an award at a festival. And of course I saw, like almost everyone else Tony Erdman. I was so impressed with that movie and with her as an actress. I like the director (Maren Ade) and found it very inspiring. So I sort of had her in mind. That’s why I gave her the part Sibyl. It was a small role for her, but I immediately connected with the relationship she has with her acting. She has a very artistic approach and her journey is very different from what you can see in France. She started in theater and she has a very deep dedication, even physical, to what she does. It was while making Sibyl that I had the idea of creating a role for her.
The first idea was to write it mainly in English. I finally came up with this story (about a German writer living in France) because I decided that this issue of language would not just be something we should try to get rid of because you want to work with a foreign actress, but that language should be at the heart of this foreign character being tried in a foreign country and unable to defend herself in her native language. Language becomes an important aspect of the plot.
The structure of the film is very much in the true crime genre. Are you a fan?
I read these kinds of true crime stories almost daily and watch, again almost daily, these trial films and series. So they were an inspiration. I always thought that one day I would make a movie with a process at the heart of the plot, at the heart of the story. But often as a viewer of these shows and movies, or when I read or watched them, I got the impression that the stories are too easy, too obvious. The resolution is always too obvious. I don’t want to give any spoilers for the movie, but the resolution isn’t clear here. My intention in making this film is to make something very complicated and unclear even at the end of the film. Together with my co-writer (Arthur Harari), we really worked on that aspect, to constantly create questions around the case and around the process. You can think of it as a whodunit, but I think it’s mainly a movie about a couple’s relationship. What was interesting to me was to use this pretext of the murder trial to dissect the relationship of a couple who have a child together but have no common language. That was the core of the story for me, the process was an afterthought.
The issue of reality versus fiction and how we turn the facts of the real world into narrative stories seem to be core themes of the film.. The two writers create work that is semi-autobiographical; they use their real lives as fodder for their novels. And then there’s the court system, where the prosecution and defense lawyers use very vague facts to create different fictionalized versions of what happened.
Precisely. I really see court as a place where our lives are fictionalized, where a story, a story, is told about our lives. Everyone there tells a story, everyone creates a story, and everything is far from the truth. Even Sandra and her lawyer distance themselves from the truth; they distort reality in order to defend her – exactly what the prosecutor on the other side does to convict her. The state gets very judgmental about its way of life. When I was doing the research for the film, I found it very interesting that even today, in 2023, where, at least in France or in other Western countries, women are supposed to have the same status as men, life choices, such as choosing a career, or being sexually open, are judged negatively. Sandra’s bisexuality is used against her in the case. I wanted to show how these trials are kind of a nightmare for people because your own life is taken from you, everyone creates a fiction and doesn’t really try to find out the truth. Myself, being obsessed with the truth and trying to find the truth through stories, I found that very interesting.
One of the main plot elements in the story is an audio recording of an argument the pair are having. The recording becomes very important in the process. Now such a recording should be a form of absolute proof, of clear facts. But even this audio recording is used by the prosecution out of context. It just becomes material to fictionalize and then attack Sandra. Everyone is completely separated from the truth of what really happened and creates different fictions around her.
Speaking of that recording, how was that done? Did you just shoot the scene on set?
It was actually quite a challenge, because the fight took us two days to shoot. And from the beginning, when I wrote the script with my co-writer, we didn’t agree on this fight. Writing this fight scene was actually a fight between the two of us about what it meant. Before shooting, Sandra wanted to do the whole scene in one day, she didn’t want to stop or break up. But it was extremely debilitating. It was a very difficult process to get through. So we shot the first day. And then on the second day I looked at them and realized that even we had all the material we needed, visually the two couldn’t stop acting and reenacting the full scene. So we kept recording and we had this full fight, maybe 12-14 minutes long, with its very violent ending, all shot. It was very interesting to me, because I’ve always been very fascinated with sound. I’m more obsessed with recording sound than images. Because you can’t cheat with sound like you can with image. The truth is in it. That’s something you see in crime stories and court cases, where audiences are fascinated by, by sound, they feel a certain amount of authenticity in it. But there’s another aspect, this kind of emotional power, this melancholy, that you feel in sound that you can never create with images. One of the first decisions in the movie, even during the writing process, was that we cut out some of the visuals and cling to the sound, which would give us the material to seek the truth of the story, without the pictures to show it.
I think we’re running out of time, but I want a really quick, incredibly important question: the dog in the movie, the border collie Snoop, plays a key role in the plot. He’s almost my front runner to win the Palm Dog award as Best Canine Artist at Cannes this year. Was it challenging to work with him and how did you incorporate him into this story?
Well, it was clear to me from the start that Snoop would be the husband’s double. He’s not just a character or a running animal. In many ways he represents this dead, this absent person. There was a scene that we shot that we ended up cutting out of the final film where the dog vomits and it was very clear that he was the presence that replaced Samuel. I’ve worked with animals before: I’ve had a monkey and a dog in my previous films, and I know it’s often not easy to work with animals. But we were lucky this time to work with someone in the company who trains animals for the industry. The lady who owns Snoop was a very key person for us to have him be a character, actually be part of the film’s ensemble as much as any of the other actors. In several scenes, we are on the level of the dog; we see things from his perspective. He’s just as much of a character as anyone else, and that was really important to me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.