The Production Design behind Anatomy of a Fall

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In Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall (2023), Sandra Hüller plays Sandra, a German novelist accused of murdering her French husband, Samuel, after he is found dead on the ground outside their Alpine home. It is clear that he fell from the top window of their four-story chalet – but whether this was an accident, suicide or murder remains the film’s unresolved crux, with the jury’s final conclusion only serving to further cloud viewers’ perceptions of where the truth lies.
Samuel’s body is found by the couple’s young son, Daniel, after returning from a dog walk. Daniel is blind, and the only person apart from his parents present on the day of his father’s death. His sharp hearing abilities and perception of how sound travels through the lofty rooms and staircases of the family’s house put his testimonies at the centre of the court case.

Daniel in the attic of the family’s Alpine chalet. Source: IMDB.

Daniel’s witness statements are analysed with scrutiny by detectives and lawyers alike, and become the groundwork for a long and meticulous forensics process, during which numerous reconstructions of Samuel’s fall are made. As the evidence builds and the trial gains momentum, young Daniel becomes increasingly doubtful of what he remembers, and increasingly uncertain of what – and who – he can trust.

Production design: two opposing spaces

Triet presents us with a razor-sharp dissection of not simply a legal trial, but a family – and in particular Sandra and Samuel’s strained marriage. Key to this is the film’s production design. With the two-and-a-half hour running time split almost evenly between the family’s Alpine chalet and the courtroom in nearby Grenoble, two contrasting spaces are constructed, two distinct realms of private and public.
Interestingly, it is in the public space of the courtroom (rendered even more public by the fact that, as a well-known author, Sandra’s case has garnered considerable interest from the press) when Sandra’s steely facade is at its most transparent. Forced to speak in broken French and repeatedly slipping into her fluent English, Sandra frequently becomes frustrated. It is here that Hüller’s chillingly muted performance offers the most vulnerability. The lighting of the courtroom – soft and warm with an implied transition through the afternoon towards sunset – enhances this sense of soft fragility, standing in stark contrast to the intense white glare of the Alpine valley, which permeates all corners of the family’s open-plan, high-ceilinged house.

Sandra, played by Sandra Hüller, in the Grenoble courtroom. Still from Anatomy of a Fall.

Sandra in her family house, a chalet in the Alps. Still from Anatomy of a Fall.
Indeed, despite being their residence for the best part of a decade, there is a frostiness to the family’s house that extends beyond the Alpine climate. It soon becomes clear that Samuel’s idea to relocate the family from London to this secluded corner of the Alps ( in order to be removed from distractions to their intellectual creativity – he is also a writer) has been a cause of considerable tension in their marriage. Triet keeps us at arm’s length during the scenes in and around the chalet; the harsh light often leaves the characters in silhouette, and a cold distance is thus maintained between Sandra and the audience. Her true thoughts remain obscured. 
Triet’s subversion of public and private spheres here is just one example of the many layers carefully crafted across the film to form an elusive, ambiguous realm between truth and lies.

Sandra’s lawyer, Vincent (Swann Arlaud) looks up at the chalet window. Still from Anatomy of a Fall.

The house

From the second-empire-style Bates’ mansion in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to the sleek minimalism of the house in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019), domestic spaces are an oft-used cinematic tool to visually map the psychological layers that make up a ‘family’. From the very opening scene of Anatomy of a Fall, we witness a domestic space steeped in tension. Sandra is being interviewed by a graduate student in the living area, yet the exchange is unsuccessful due to the increasing noise pulsating through the house: Samuel, upstairs in the attic, is hammering and drilling whilst an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s ‘P.I.M.P’ blasts deafeningly from his speaker. Sandra’s cold gaze fixes repeatedly on the ceiling above; it seems that Samuel is deliberately disrupting her session. The walls, doorways and ceilings of this open-plan space form a channel of non-verbal communication from the outset.

Exterior of the family’s house. Still taken from Anatomy of a Fall.

The house is spacious and comfortable, yet weathered and clearly lived-in. During pre-production, the film’s location scouts specified in a location call-out that they were looking for a house
“ideally three or four stories (exceptionally high for an individual home) yet without giving an immediate impression of a luxury or recently-built chalet”
Their search was successful: the chosen location of a building in Villarembert, Haute-Savoie, was still under refurbishment during filming. The lower floors are comfortable yet well-worn, and the upper floors are unfinished, with exposed wooden beams and half-painted walls. In addition to being a visual reminder of the couple’s increasing financial strain, there is a symbolism inherent in this worn-out setting, which suggests a mostly comfortable yet increasingly weary family dynamic. The unfinished building works, meanwhile, provide a visual allegory for the couple’s failed ambitions, both personal and professional: their hopes to find success in this remote mountain region have not been fully realised. Indeed, we soon learn that, whilst Sandra’s career has somewhat flourished, Samuel’s has been flailing.

Sandra enters the attic of the family home. At the opposite end, out of shot, is the balcony from which Samuel was supposedly pushed.

Another effect of the unfinished decor is that it provides a constant reminder of the structure and scaffolding of this domestic space – a space that is raw, vulnerable and increasingly exposed as police investigations develop. The clean lines of the wooden beams, the height between balconies and floors, the angles of roof-tops, and where rooms lie in relation to one-another all become part of a complex equation at the centre of the criminal case. The house is deconstructed into a series of measurements as investigators reconstruct a range of possibilities for the cause of Samuel’s death. Indeed, it becomes not simply a crime-scene, but a sort of theatre in which the potential murder is played out, disquietingly, again and again, with dummies thrown from the attic window in an attempt to determine the exact trajectory of Samuel’s fall. In the courtroom, a 3-D digital replica of the house, balcony and shed is projected onto a large screen in yet another layer of scrutiny.

The attic window, from which dummies are thrown during the investigation to recreate Samuel’s fall.

Sound and space

How sound travels through the house is of particular interest to investigators due to Daniel’s blindness. There are unique textured panels attached to the doors to each room, which Daniel can touch to orientate himself within the house. In one excruciatingly tense scene, Sandra, on an upper floor, is forced to reenact a conversation with her husband, held the afternoon of his death. She has to speak at increasing volume intervals, to determine if the sound could have reached Daniel below (who remembers being in a ground floor room when hearing the conversation). Investigators conclude that, for Daniel to have been able to hear his parents, they must have been shouting at one another in a heated argument – which is then used as ‘evidence’ that Sandra may have been motivated by her anger to murder Samuel. When Daniel later contradicts his statement, saying he thinks that he had in fact been in a different room, the investigators’ calculations and measurements collapse. The entire space becomes distorted by the fallibility of memory.

The Alpine Valley

The wider location of the house contributes further to the sense of ambiguity surrounding this family and Samuel’s fall. The chalet is constantly surrounded by a thick blanket of snow, stretching across the vast valley below. The first effect of this is the practical obstacle posed to the forensics team and the court: the melting of snow means that the traces of Samuel’s blood on the ground beneath the balcony – and on the roof of the shed – moved or disappeared entirely between the time of the incident and the arrival of the police. The surrounding landscape snatches any hope of concrete evidence away and the investigators are left with speculation only.

An imagined scene, recreating the prosecution’s accusations that Sandra pushed her husband.

The other effect is more psychological and abstract: the vast mountain valley serves to disorient the viewer and isolate this home, sealing it into a bubble far from the rest of society. Triet explained that she found it interesting to “have the curves of the mountain in the background, where we don’t stop ascending and descending to try to understand this fall”, adding that “as we’re in something very enclosed, [she] wanted the exterior to be violent”. The location scouts’ requirement for a house that is “isolated, in part or in entirety, and at a sufficiently high altitude to hope to have snow in March” reveals that snow was high on the crew’s priority list for the film’s production design. This was in large part due to the luminosity of mountain light. Triet wanted a “very cold, raw light”, not only to contrast the courtroom scenes as mentioned earlier in the article, but to provide a powerful and brutal contrast to the many indoor scenes filmed inside the house.
The result? A forceful, pressing sense of the outside world invading the family home; an implosion of truth, justice and family.
By Rosa Haworth

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