When the truth is extravagant and lying becomes an art

“Anatomy of a fall”

The filmmaker, Justine Triet, in her judicial thriller Anatomy of a Fall, delves into the cynicism and violence of a postmodern society that has turned truth into an extravagance and lies into an art at the service of injustice and deception, to avoid liability for our actions. The trial of a writer suspected of the murder of her husband raises bioethical dilemmas about the value of truth, the difficulties of the couple in a context of selfishness and vanity, the border between the public and the private, as well as professional ethics as a moral act.

“The truth does not matter (…) It will be difficult to defend an accidental fall, and blaming a stranger is a terrible strategy (…) Is there anything that could fit with a suicide? That is our best strategy.” Lawyer Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), friend of the fictional writer, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), persuades his friend – accused of the murder of her husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis) – that the ability to manipulate the facts and that these fit into versions that appear plausible can provide an acquittal, which does not imply being innocent. “But, I didn’t kill him. I think he fell” Sandra answers. And she comes across a blunt warning from the lawyer: “No one is going to believe that. I don’t believe it myself.”

This dialogue, in the first minutes of footage of the film Anatomy of a Fall, is a declaration of intentions by the French director, Justine Triet, who delves into the wounds and deep contradictions of our postmodern society with a judicial drama. Triet turns to the quintessential setting of the search for truth, equity and goodness that is the courtroom, in order to incisively analyze and question the extent of the cynicism and violence of the system in which we live.

The plot takes place in two spaces that demarcate the public and private spheres. The public sphere corresponds to the scene of the trial of some traumatic events that occur in a home in the French Alps, a private sphere.

Sandra, a successful German writer, lives with her husband, Samuel, a professor and writer in crisis. He dies under mysterious circumstances, falling into the void from the attic of the house. The scenario is complicated because the only witness is the couple’s son, Daniel Maleski, (Milo Machado), who suffers from severe blindness due to an accident during his childhood. The autopsy does not determine whether it was a suicide or a homicide, and Sandra is charged with murder. Before being accused, she hires a lawyer friend, Vincent Renzi, to advise her and, if necessary, take charge of her defense.

From this moment on, language becomes the raw material at the service of conjectures and hypotheses between the defense lawyer and the prosecution prosecutor, a role played by Antoine Reinartz. Reality is modified and molded as appropriate in the different recreations of the matter investigated. In the absence of facts, the search for truth leaves the scene so that moral judgments about the private life of the couple or the sexual orientation of the woman can run wild, and a tumultuous relationship can be aired, through audio recorded with a mobile phone, references to fictional literature, contrary expert reports and witness statements that are twisted in favor of seemingly plausible stories.

At the trial, Sandra’s defense argues that Samuel committed suicide, a thesis denied by his psychiatrist that reveals the woman’s resentment towards her husband, whom for years she has made feel guilty of the accident involving her son.  For its part, the prosecution maintains that it was the woman who hit him with a blunt object and then pushed him into the void.

As the film progresses, the viewer witnesses the ability to manipulate information in the service of the narrative that interests each moment. The least important thing is the search for the truth about whether Sandra could have committed the murder or not. The judicial and media show abounds in damages that erase any possible trace of innocence in a child. Distraught, Daniel attends a recorded fight in which his father accuses his mother of plagiarism, infidelity and of exercising iron control over his life that has led to his failure as a writer. It will be the son, as a witness for the prosecution, who in the midst of many doubts will declare that his father had recently spoken to him about the need to be prepared to lose loved ones, knowing that life goes on, something that Daniel interprets as a premonition of his father’s suicidal thoughts. However, Sandra’s imperturbable face, lies and contradictions in her testimonies, and her actions that are difficult to explain contribute to the couple’s son and the viewer harboring, despite the final verdict, serious doubts about the writer’s innocence.

Bioethical dilemmas

The condensation of bioethical dilemmas in this film is directly proportional to the mastery of the filmmaker, Justine Triet, in delving into the labyrinths of human relationships, questioning the viewer about what they see on the screen and intuiting what is outside the field, letting doubts and reflection persist beyond the projection.

The value of truth is one of the central dilemmas of the film. Triet puts his finger on the wound of a contemporary society that has reduced the search for truth to mere extravagance or obsolete convention, and has made lying an art to hide or disguise injustice and remove the guilty from any responsibility as a consequence of the actions. The word, far from unraveling, orients itself, flatters the ear and the opinion, devoid of moral principles and subject to interests that confuse what is just and good with what is advantageous. Plato’s work Gorgias is an excellent version of the criticism of a rhetoric that plays in favor of injustice and the preponderance of the emotional to take advantage, knock out or cajole the adversary. What matters is the truth, what counts is the power of the story and making it fit with the interests at stake. Oratory skill is presented as synonymous with deception, demagoguery and verbiage that covers the emptiness of the messages and turns everything into mere propaganda genre.

Irony, subjectivities and games between reality and fiction also serve Justine Triet to ask herself about couples today, the difficulties of true equality between men and women and, above all, the deterioration of coexistence due to individualistic inertia and selfish in contemporary society. Added to this is a vanity that confuses personal triumph with professional position. Penetrating scenes in the film reveal this. The border between the public and the private, the invasion of privacy, without any consideration and muddying without paying attention to the damage to people is also another key transcript in Anatomy of a Fall. In fact, the title itself alludes to both the plot and the decline of Sandra and Samuel’s relationship. It even refers to two masterpieces, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), by Otto Preminger, and Secrets of a Marriage (1973) by Ingmar Bergman, a story that questions us about how people who once loved each other can become a lot of damage.

Another bioethical dilemma that is not minor has to do with professional ethics as a moral act inseparable from the person. Professional deontology as a code of duties presents us with a normative and prescriptive dimension that is mandatory in each profession, but ethics confronts the person with their own decisions when faced with dilemmatic situations. It is the compass of a moral conscience that determines the truth and goodness of the action and, at the same time, corresponds to a supreme good that is the care of human life and respect for the intrinsic dignity of each person.

As a coda, the filmmaker Justine Triet has achieved with this film the Palme d’Or at Cannes and five nominations for different categories at the next Oscars. However, the French Film Academy removed it from the race to represent the country at the Hollywood awards in the category of best foreign film, after Triet criticized President Emmanuel Macron’s social cuts. The Hollywood Academy has corrected the injustice, on its own, with five nominations for a brilliant film that should not be missed.

Amparo Aygües – Master’s Degree in Bioethics – Catholic University of Valencia – Collaborator of the Bioethics Observatory