Unlike her contemporaries, Justine Triet, the Academy Award and Palme d’Or–winning writer and director of Anatomy of a Fall (2023), is not interested in the jeune fille. The women at the center of her first three feature films are unmarried mothers just shy of middle age, brisk, pragmatic, professionally self-assured, and sexually magnetic. Each is orbited by a cast of mostly inept, self-absorbed men who clamor for help and approval, and who provoke in her conflicted feelings of exasperation and tenderness. They are, however, handy babysitters. Casually, she asks or expects them to hang around her dirty, cluttered apartment and look after her daughters, whom she loves—about this, there can be no doubt—but with an air of constant preoccupation. Much of her attention is absorbed by her work, as a journalist, a lawyer, or a psychoanalyst and novelist. More than a wife or mother, she identifies as a person who manipulates the conditions of reality with her words.

In the stressful docu-comedy Age of Panic (2013), the woman is Laetitia, played by Laetitia Dosch. She is a Parisian television journalist who must cover the 2012 national elections on the same day that her estranged ex-husband insists on seeing their daughters. Laetitia bustles from task to task with an abstracted, almost dazed sense of efficiency—trying on clothes, giving instructions to the bewildered babysitter, smiling for the camera—while her ex heaves and shouts and stalks her around the city. In the romantic comedy In Bed with Victoria (2016), the woman is Victoria, played by Virginie Efira. A brashly sexy lawyer, Victoria is often filmed from above as she sprints from one scene and one man to another: to court, where she defends her ex-boyfriend against the charge that he assaulted his girlfriend at a wedding; to a community center, where her ex-husband performs a dramatic reading of his autofictional blog about her to a room full of eager men; to her apartment, where a former client, a puppyish drug dealer, sleeps on her couch in exchange for babysitting her daughters.

In the psychological thriller Sibyl (2019), the woman is Sibyl—Efira again—a novelist and psychoanalyst. She becomes obsessed with a patient, a young, pregnant actress who must decide whether to have an abortion, a decision that recalls Sibyl’s own choice nearly a decade earlier to have the child of the man who abandoned her. Leaving her daughters in the care of her boyfriend, Sibyl accompanies the actress to a film set and gets caught up in the triangle formed by the actress, the actor who impregnated her, and his wife, the film’s director. The surreal encounter—we never quite know who is acting, who is not, or what the difference might be—serves as the source material for the novel that Sibyl will write.

For Laetitia, Victoria, and Sibyl, life is a perilous high-wire act, with work serving as the pivot point, the anchor for their sense of self and reality. When their work starts to wobble, they do, too. Laetitia, drained by her day of reporting, turns violent with her ex, then hysterically horny with her lover. Victoria, whose license is suspended for unethical practices, reads the collected works of Nietzsche and overdoses on pills. Sibyl, who transgresses every boundary between an analyst and her client, drinks compulsively. Their men, never reliable to begin with, disappear. The children turn weepy, petulant, and sullen, or, worse, they remain entirely indifferent to their mother’s struggles. As the woman’s world goes to pieces, a void opens beneath her feet, a blank where meaning and identity had been etched in the always artificial and unforgiving language of professional competence.

What does she see when she looks down? Her downfall, her shame, yes—but also her chance at freedom. When one’s past suddenly feels so distant, so foreign, so violently estranged from one’s present, it is possible—indeed, it may be necessary—to imagine oneself anew. And so Triet’s women start to play make-believe: to act; to perceive themselves, in essence, as fictional characters, and to perceive others as characters, too, who might be corralled into a grand literary act of self-reconstruction. “I see very clearly now,” Sibyl thinks in the film’s final voiceover. “My life is a fiction. I can rewrite it however I want. I can do anything, change anything, create anything.” She starts to write in the French tradition of autofiction, while Victoria sues her ex-husband for the autofiction he has written about her. But what kind of fictions are their lives? And how will their power to do anything, change anything, create anything infringe on others?

Anatomy of a Fall, Triet’s fourth feature, combines all the familiar motifs of her earlier ones but without the comedy or the sex. In their place we have a marriage between the novelist Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) and Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), a teacher who aspires to write a novel. Sandra is not only aware of the freedom that Laetitia, Sibyl, and Veronica discovered; she has exercised it to tremendous success. Her critically acclaimed autofictional novels narrate her father’s death, her mother’s illness, and the accident that caused her eleven-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), to lose almost all of his vision. Her novel describes the accident in “such detail, like in a documentary,” observes Zoé, the graduate student who interviews Sandra at her house in the cold, glittering, desolate French Alps. In the scripted version of this scene, though not in the final film, Zoé, fascinated and irritated by Sandra’s relationship to “the real,” interrogates her reliance on life. “Your stories never come purely from your imagination,” Zoé accuses her, to which Sandra replies, blithely, “As soon as I start writing I destroy what I know.”


Anatomy of a Fall deals with the consequences of making a name by destroying what one knows. Among these consequences are the rage and disappointment of Samuel, which have curdled into a resentment so acute that it is unspeakable, uncontainable. It is atmospheric. We do not see Samuel, but we hear his hammering over the song that he plays upstairs on loop, presumably to disrupt the women’s conversation—an instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.,” a song that is at once embarrassing in its datedness and more than a little pathetic, especially if one imagines Samuel trying to identify with its refrain: “I’m a motherfuckin’ P.I.M.P.” “P.I.M.P.” starts and stops, starts and stops, grows louder, until Sandra and Zoé cut the interview short. Zoé leaves, as does Daniel, who goes for a walk with his seeing-eye dog, Snoop, trudging far enough for the music to fade and to be replaced by the sound of their feet in the snow and Daniel’s gentle commands. They stumble back to the house, back to the deafening noise. There, by the side of the shed, they discover Samuel’s body.

The discovery and examination of the body is the only time that the film shows Samuel in its present. The autopsy turns him into a series of photographs, of bruised and fractured body parts; the investigation into his death resurrects him through videos and recordings—as a mere reproduction of a human being, a man turned into moving images and distant sounds. His speech and his actions are recreated by lawyers who rehearse the events that led to his fall. They film a polyurethane mannequin, Samuel’s double, falling from the window. They restage what Sandra tells them was her last conversation with Samuel: two investigators read the couple’s lines flatly, and a wobbling handheld camera records their performance as the harsh white sunlight pours in from the window, washing out their features.

The investigation, which attempts to understand, through visual and aural technologies, the truth of what happened to Samuel, permits Triet to indulge her obsession with cinema’s mixed mediums. Across all her films, her characters film, tape, and photograph, revisiting images or recordings of themselves to grasp the truth of who they were in the past and who they are now. Like Sibyl (or like François Truffaut’s Day for Night, to which Sibyl pays homage), Anatomy relishes its metacinematic twists. The film populates its world with professional actors who play at being amateurs, who act well by acting badly—as prosecutors, as lawyers, as witnesses—for the cameras within the camera.

Daniel, who must prove to the investigators that he heard his parents speaking peaceably, not fighting, when he left the house, is filmed confessing that he made a mistake about where he was when he heard them. Sandra, awkward and hesitant, practices her testimony in front of her lawyers, Vincent and Noor; they film her as she insists that she will “protect Samuel’s image,” not build a case for her innocence. “You need to start seeing yourself the way others are going to perceive you,” Vincent tells her—a line rich in irony given that she has made a career doing just that, but with the plausible deniability that writing affords the novelist. The technologies of cinema seem to offer no such cover.

Or do they? When the story shifts from the investigation to the courtroom, almost every scene, every testimony is keyed to a video or audio recording made in its first half. The film starts to loop back on itself; like “P.I.M.P.,” it seems to be stuck on repeat. With each repetition, its earlier scenes accrue new meanings—meanings that the prosecutor, the defense, and Sandra argue over, in French and English. Now the audio of Zoé’s interview with Sandra, when played for all to hear, makes Sandra’s voice sound hollow, exaggerated, flirtatious, and desperate. Now the video of Daniel, expressing his confusion about where he was when he heard his parents speaking, looks like the video of a guilty child trying to squirm his way out of an unpracticed lie. Now the film of the falling mannequin, played in slow-motion, appears comic in its crudity. Yet whether the original or its repetition, these are all simulacra; the truth of what happened to Samuel does not exist here. Far from establishing the definitive story, the film’s self-cannibalizing structure forces its mediums and its multiple languages into the same instability as the autofiction that Sandra writes.


The closest a recording comes to persuading us that we can know the truth is the recording that Samuel secretly made of the fight he and Sandra had the day before his death. They fight in the kitchen, where he has prepared a meal that she eats greedily. Ostensibly material for his novel, the audio casts them in rigid and unforgiving yet recognizable roles: the conquering woman, the thwarted man. She is a shameless careerist, a cheat, a bad mother. He is pathetic and self-victimizing, a man with big ideas and no follow-through who has “blamed himself on a loop,” Sandra claims, for Daniel’s accident. His guilt and his martyrdom to his son are choices, she insists, inoculating him from taking real artistic risks. The fight seems like the sum total of every fight they have ever had—the sum total of all the fights, in all the marriages, in all the world—with every accusation, every counteraccusation compressed into ten minutes. It is a stroke of genius and an act of sadism to make the dialogue as precise and loud as “P.I.M.P.”; to let us hear every bite and every chew, every pour of wine, every breath, hiss, and slap. Watching two people fight is as excruciatingly intimate as watching them have sex, and much more interesting.

But what does it prove? A day in the life of a marriage cannot be substituted for the day before or the day after it. People do not live on a loop, and even if they rehearse their arguments, even if they tell the same stories again and again, their performances almost always deviate from the script. “That recording is not reality. If you have an extreme moment in life, an emotional peak, and focus on it, of course, it crushes everything,” Sandra insists. “It’s our voices, but it’s not who we are.” Yet in a courtroom, under the eyes of the law, with its faith in evidence, this is exactly what marriage becomes. Marriage is a song stuck on repeat; an endless dress rehearsal in which one plays the most abject and cruel version of oneself; a trap that one falls into—bang—over and over again; an infinite simulacrum of a real and fulfilling life.

It is less pessimistic, although not optimistic, to observe that all marriages settle into their patterns. Looking back, as Anatomy of a Fall forces us to do, one wonders how these patterns become well-worn grooves; when, exactly, they began to wear one’s patience thin or simply shred it to bits. One also knows that the pattern does not tell the whole story. “Sometimes a couple is a kind of chaos,” Sandra insists. The truth lives within this chaos on the other side of what can be made visible and audible, of what can be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt.

What kind of fiction is her life? One startling answer to that question is that Sandra is a supporting actress in someone else’s fiction—her son’s. The children in Triet’s previous films are too young to be much more than comic accessories; they cry, scream, play, and mimic what the adults around them say or do. To rewatch Anatomy of a Fall is to attend to the child; to what Daniel can or cannot see; to how his lack of vision stimulates his imagination. Incapable of seeing the evidence that the lawyers and investigators have generated of his father’s fall, he possesses the unique freedom to choose what to believe and what type of story to tell about his family—a choice that eluded his parents, who were trapped in the same loop till death did them part. This is the obvious yet shocking revelation that anchors the film: every parent’s marriage plot is her child’s Bildung.

If Daniel is placed front and center, a different story begins to unfold—one in which justice is not a parade of simulacra but, quite literally, blind. The film begins not with the interview but with an all-encompassing darkness. We hear before we are permitted to see, and what we hear, then see, is Snoop panting, fetching a ball to give to Daniel, who prepares his bath, while Sandra and Zoé speak to each other. The two scenes, with Daniel upstairs in his private dark and his mother downstairs in her Alpine light are equally important, if entirely disconnected from each other. Day for Night, indeed.

How much can Daniel see? Or how, exactly, do he and Snoop see together? We do not have a clear sense of his point of view until the trial begins, one year after his father’s death, when he has had time to grow up, to rehearse what happened on that day in his mind. As he listens to the experts testify, the camera cuts first to his face, up close, and then shows us a flash of a scene that no one could have witnessed—his mother striking his father, his father alone, falling to his death. Where do these scenes exist?

Triet’s camera work suggests they exist deep in the child’s mind, which is as dazzlingly and finely illuminated as the snow in the sunlight. When his mother testifies, the camera occasionally sits near Daniel’s shoulder, and although he cannot see her on the stand, what she discloses sharpens his point of view—of his mother, of his father, and of the crimes committed within their marriage. Listening to the recording of their fight, the exaggerated soundtrack, we suspect, is how Daniel hears it. The film’s visualization of it does not represent how it really played out, but how he imagines it.

A startling amount of Anatomy of a Fall seems to take place in Daniel’s consciousness, which is shaped by his active and intelligent imagination. It revolves around a single question: Is his father a suicide or his mother a murderer? “When we lack the ability to judge something, and this lack is unbearable, the only thing we can do is decide,” Marge, Daniel’s court-appointed guardian, instructs him, a little too bluntly. The narrative that Daniel reaches for to decide between these options is seeded early on, when Sandra steps outside to take a phone call, and, believing that Daniel is absorbed with practicing the piano, tells Vincent that one morning a few months earlier she found Samuel passed out in his own vomit and suspected that he had tried to overdose on aspirin. “If they indict you, it’s probably our best defense,” Vincent tells Sandra, although he does little to prove Samuel’s suicide.

It is Daniel who uses Snoop to see the truth. We expect the dog’s vision and the boy’s imagination to converge; Triet’s close-ups of the dog’s face draw attention to his eyes, pale blue and amazingly vigilant. But we do not expect Daniel’s willingness to put Snoop at risk. He tests the scenario his mother narrated, giving the dog aspirin, then telling the court that Snoop’s strange behavior tracks with his strange behavior on the day after that alleged suicide attempt, when Snoop might have eaten his father’s vomited aspirin.

The testimony that Daniel gives in court, after the recording of his parents’ fight, is proof of his decision to believe his mother. Daniel tells a story about taking Snoop to the vet with his father. As he begins to speak, the camera cuts to the image of Samuel in the car with Daniel in the passenger’s seat. The scene, which is shot partially from the back seat, cannot represent the child’s visual memory; only Snoop is back there. We see Samuel’s mouth move, but we do not hear his voice, only Daniel’s narration of the story that his father allegedly told him in the car. The story is about Snoop, “an outstanding dog,” whose existence, Samuel explains to his son, is defined by the submission of his vision to someone else’s demands. “He spends his life imagining your needs, thinking about what you can’t see,” Daniel’s Samuel says. It can only end in exhaustion: “Prepare yourself. It’ll be hard. But it won’t be the end of your life.” We do not need Daniel to tell us that his father is not really speaking about Snoop, who yields his vision to Daniel with generosity, without pity or regret. We know Samuel is speaking about himself from the look of resigned, gentle bitterness on his face—the last time we see it, but through his son’s imagination.

The story is, quite obviously, fictional, but by no means untrue. What Daniel narrates springs from a hard kernel of truth, a decision about who his father was, even if he cannot know what his father did. The story also seems rehearsed, with the same impassive determination with which we see Daniel playing the piano throughout the film, working the same tricky phrase until he gets it right. The clear, unfussy style of Daniel’s narration; the subtle and unsentimental allegory he offers his listeners; the family car as the setting for this moving exchange between father and son—this is the realist story as courtroom testimony, an utterly flawless performance of showing, not telling (or of telling, not showing, on cinema’s terms). It has to be. Daniel knows that he has no evidence. He is the only witness without a corroborating medium—no photograph, no video, no recording, no simulation, no notes. Yet Daniel’s story will be accepted as true by all who hear it. We know this from the slump of the prosecutor’s shoulders and his flat, unsneering observation that the boy’s testimony in no way qualifies as proof. The claim the story makes on its audience is not evidentiary; it is moral. To deny a grieving child his choice—to believe in his mother’s innocence, to reunite with her—would be an act of unbearable cruelty. We know what the verdict will be. We do not need to hear it announced.

What kind of fiction is her life? The mother is a writer of autofiction. Her son is a visionary of realism. Autofiction needs realism to save it from destroying what it knows; from solipsism and self-indulgence; from destroying other peoples’ lives in the pursuit of self-creation. Realism needs autofiction to liberate it from the imagination; to charge its claims to reality with truth, even if they are not, strictly speaking, real. Anatomy of a Fall is not truly a story about marriage, good, bad, whatever. It is a story about how cinema can reconcile these estranged genres of prose. More prosaically, it is about how a mother needs her son, and how a son needs his mother, even—or especially—when their visions of life diverge. Together, they can do anything, change anything, create anything. For some, this may be an ennobling prospect. For others—a husband and father, perhaps—it may be a terrifying one.

But let’s spare a sympathetic thought for husbands at the end. There is, of course, a more literal answer to the question “What kind of fiction is her life?” Sandra’s life is a fiction written by Justine Triet and her partner, Arthur Harari, winners of the 2023 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Harari, who also cowrote the screenplay for Sibyl, has appeared in all of Triet’s films, in increasingly diminished roles. In Age of Panic, he is Arthur, the calm, competent, handsome, and charming law student who helps Laetitia’s ex see his daughters. In In Bed with Victoria, he is “Le dresseur de chimpanzé,” the handler of the chimpanzee that performs at the wedding where Victoria’s ex-boyfriend is accused of assault, and that serves as a witness at his trial. In Sibyl, he is Dr. Katz, Sibyl’s analyst, who speaks torrentially, maniacally, in the film’s opening, but soon fades from the story.

In Anatomy of a Fall, Harari is “La critique littéraire,” a literary critic. We glimpse him only once, on the television program that Daniel and Sandra watch, simultaneously but separately, as they wait for the verdict. He explains to the audience that people are excited by the trial because it inverts the expected order of things; suddenly life is vulnerable to fiction instead of the other way around. In this state of vulnerability, the truth of what happened to Samuel does not matter. What matters is which version of the story people find more persuasive, more intriguing. “The story of a writer who murdered her husband is a lot more interesting than a teacher who committed suicide,” he concludes, before echoing Sandra’s words to Zoé at the film’s beginning: “Fiction can destroy reality.”

Triet’s casting of Harari as a lawyer, a handler, an analyst, and a critic points us to a way out of the film’s obsessive loops and toward a more optimistic vision of marriage. Marriage is a contract, one that secures every person’s right and responsibility to care for the family they have created. Marriage is an entertaining social performance, in which one escorts a mostly well-trained primate from one party to another, encouraging him or her to perform tricks. Marriage is a conversation, during which one person talks incessantly, then shuts up and listens. Marriage is like a nightly television program; you tune into it for brief, illuminating stretches of time before it fades into the background of daily life. Marriage is an inside joke between cowriters, a director and her critic—the trick is to find new ways to deliver the punch line. Marriage is a way of recruiting a thwarted man for your creative project rather than, say, murdering him.

Which marriage you are in depends on which story you want to believe. And that depends on which story you find more interesting.