Anatomy of Another Fall

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When the French director Justine Triet’s first feature, “Age of Panic,” screened in New York—in 2014, the year after its Cannes première—it felt as if the movie might herald a new energy in French cinema. Blending fiction and documentary in a daringly original framework, it held out a promise that rough contact with real life could stimulate greater artistic freedom in the filming of fictional dramas. It wasn’t alone. Other French films that came out around the same time—such as Antonin Peretjatko’s “The Rendez-Vous of Déjà Vu,” Sophie Letourneur’s “Les Coquillettes,” and Guillaume Brac’s “A World Without Women” and “Tonnerre”—were doing something similar, to such distinctive effect, that the shared spark of inspiration felt like a generational watershed, a collective renewal. But this promise was short-lived, both in French cinema at large and in Triet’s own work. Her latest film, “Anatomy of a Fall,” has been a hit, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, receiving rave reviews, and taking in some $3.5 million at the U.S. box office. But, as I wrote when it came out, it is as cramped, tightly scripted, and airlessly directed as “Age of Panic” is open, impulsive, and uninhibited. It’s sadly predictable that the earlier film has remained unreleased here, and if there’s one reason to be grateful for the success of the more conventional “Anatomy” it’s that “Age of Panic” is now available to stream, on MUBI. It’s still a delight and a wonder, if also now a melancholy reminder of what Triet accomplished at her best and hasn’t yet matched.

“Age of Panic” is set in Paris, on May 6, 2012—the date of the final round of France’s Presidential election, in which the Socialist Party’s François Hollande faced the right-wing incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. The film’s protagonist, Laetitia (Laetitia Dosch), is a TV news reporter who’s assigned to cover the rally of Hollande supporters. The movie’s French title, “La Bataille de Solférino,” is a joke, referring not to the crucial 1859 battle of that name but to the Rue de Solférino, where the rally takes place. But for Laetitia there is a battle all the same, one that begins even before she goes on the air, and which involves her baby daughters, Jeane (Jeane Arra-Bellanger) and Liv (Liv Harari), and their father, Vincent (Vincent Macaigne), from whom she is separated.

She’s had trouble finding a sitter for the evening, and the young man who shows up for the job, Marc (Marc-Antoine Vaugeois), soon learns how strange it will be. Laetitia warns him not to let Vincent into the apartment while she’s gone; he’s violent and dangerous, she says. Inevitably, Vincent comes by, and when Marc alerts Laetitia she orders him to bring the babies to her at the rally. Vincent protests that his paternal rights are being infringed, and gets his law-student friend Arthur (Arthur Harari) to help him force Laetitia’s hand. The resulting showdown erupts at the Hollande rally and continues back at Laetitia’s apartment.

It isn’t only the characters’ names that Triet borrows from real life. Audaciously, she filmed the scenes of Laetitia at work at the actual Hollande rally on that May evening. When the victor—Hollande—was announced, at 8 P.M., Triet’s crew was there to film the spontaneous celebration that her fictional character Laetitia reports on. This radical integration of fiction yields astonishment after astonishment. Laetitia, sticking her mike out at Hollande supporters, even lobs a question to the veteran Socialist politician Jack Lang and gets a response. Triet catches a teen-age pro-Sarkozy provocateur, smug and bourgeois in a lime-green polo shirt, riling up some Hollande supporters with the precocious boast “We earned our money.” And she redoubles the film’s substantial dose of real-life politics with an amazing, yet altogether plausible, twist: a reporter at the nearby rally for Sarkozy is assaulted, and Laetitia is dispatched to cover that event, too. Laetitia interviews various Sarkozyites, including a free marketeer (“We live in a global world. We have to move with the times”) and a man who fancies himself a philosopher (“Human nature is fundamentally right wing”). Late at night, back with the Socialists, she’s on hand to see their celebrations degenerate into a drunken mess, and to witness the heavy-handed response of the police.

Intimate dramas of family conflict all too commonly elide political context, but “Age of Panic” plunges its characters into the ideologies, ideals, and practicalities of a large-scale political moment. What’s more, in Triet’s hands, the political documentary and the loose, lurching, unpredictable domestic drama feel entirely of a piece. At every turn, elements from public life impinge on the story of family and friends in which Laetitia and Vincent are entangled, ranging from the complications of the rally itself to an arrest, a police interrogation, and some careful parsing of legal documents. The estranged couple’s conflict involves quasi-legalistic combing of memory to pick holes in each other’s conflicting recollections: who did what to whom, and when. Its culmination—a verbal confrontation of a terrifying intensity—takes place in front of the law student Arthur, whose negotiating skills are quickly overwhelmed. The eruption is the dramatically logical, emotionally cathartic outcome of the ex-couple’s turbulent night—and of the historic tensions that the election both embodied and exposed—while also remaining open-ended and narratively free.

The fight scene, for all its lacerating fury, also retains an edge of humor that’s reminiscent of similar scenes in films by John Cassavetes, and Triet makes that filiation all the clearer when a third young man—Laetitia’s new boyfriend, Virgil (Virgil Vernier)—shows up, only to find himself intruding on a tenuous peace while the dust is settling. He ends up joining Vincent and Arthur in a confessional male-bonding ritual that brings to mind Cassavetes’s “Husbands.” I have no idea how tightly these scenes of battle and truce were scripted, but Triet films them as if she couldn’t predict or foresee how these confrontations would play out or where they’d lead her characters. Their documentary tone and style completely match those of the reportorial (albeit fiction-infused) rally scenes. Whether out on the streets or within the four walls of Laetitia’s apartment, Triet continually catches her characters in crowded frames, filled with turmoil and instability.

Pulling off a film like “Age of Panic” obviously requires ingenious planning and carefully calibrated chutzpah, but it’s a wild film nonetheless—the only wild film that Triet has made to date. It contrasts not only with “Anatomy of a Fall” but also Triet’s two intervening features, “Victoria,” a.k.a. “In Bed with Victoria” (2016) and “Sibyl” (2019), both streaming on Amazon Prime Video. But what is truly baffling about Triet’s freewheeling first feature and its three tightly constrained successors is how much they share in terms of plot, themes, casting, and motifs. Seen in sequence, they come off almost as variations on a theme—the inseparability of personal and professional lives, of the public and private realms.

As even the barest of synopses shows, Triet’s chosen themes are so consistent and so interconnected that they defy the category of mere interests and veer into the realm of obsessions. All of her features are about working women and their family conflicts. In “Victoria,” a lawyer (Virginie Efira) who’s separated from the father of her two young daughters is persuaded by another ex of hers to defend him against charges of stabbing his latest partner. (Meanwhile, yet another ex of hers is writing an autofiction blog revealing her professional and personal secrets.) “Sibyl” is the story of a novelist turned psychotherapist—also separated from the father of her two young daughters—who, in order to return to writing, surreptitiously records and transcribes her sessions with a new patient. As for “Anatomy of a Fall,” it’s the story of two writers, Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and Samuel (Samuel Theis), who have a son together and both write about themselves and about each other. When Samuel is found dead, Sandra is charged with his murder and hires an ex-lover to represent her. In these three films, as in “Age of Panic,” the protagonists struggle to find caregivers for their children. All four films involve children with absent fathers (the absence in “Anatomy” is the permanent kind). In each movie, private life is invaded by legal issues, which bring with them a host of lawyers, police, judges, and other officials. And all of the films involve docu-fiction and autofiction—the ubiquitous intertwining of ostensible fiction with real life, especially the real lives of authors and anyone in their orbit.

Moreover, Triet signals her thematic obsessions with emblematic ones, such as her penchant for reusing a distinctive set of character names. It would take a chart to connect the dots across the four features, but, just for starters, there are two Samuels (one, a former drug dealer turned live-in caregiver; the other, a partner, father, and struggling writer); two Daniels (both are children in mourning for a parent); and three Vincents (all ex-partners). Three of the four films feature dogs, which turn out to be of great dramatic significance. The protagonists of “Age of Panic” and of “Anatomy of a Fall” share their actors’ real-life first names, and the one actor who appears in all four films is Arthur Harari, Triet’s life partner and a co-writer of “Anatomy” and “Sibyl.” He plays a law student, a literary critic, a psychotherapist, and, in “Victoria,” a chimpanzee trainer—a role that, to comic effect, proves juridically significant. (The chimp that he handles furnishes evidence at trial.)

What unites Triet’s themes is her fascination with blurred lines: there is the overlapping of private life and the world of work, of sexual and professional relationships, of fields of expertise and the family; and there is the ultimate inseparability of personal life from artistic creation and of reality from fiction. One might almost say that Triet is the modern cinematic poet of blurred lines, if only her work were more poetic. Instead, she has made three recent films on these themes that are blandly, flatly literal, that declare and depict her intentions while leaving little space for character, imagination, or the world at large. On the other hand, she has made one great feature, “Age of Panic,” which doesn’t so much illustrate blurred lines as it simply blurs them, and I’m counting on it not being her last.

“Age of Panic” shares a number of things with the promising near-contemporary work by other young French filmmakers. One is the unorthodox influence of the director Jacques Rozier, the most spontaneous and zigzagging member of the New Wave. Another is an indelible performance by the shambling, comedic, extrovertedly melancholy, and thrillingly impulsive Vincent Macaigne (whom American viewers are most likely to have seen playing the role of a director in the limited series “Irma Vep.”) Nor is he alone in his onscreen freedom: Triet’s direction fosters a spontaneity in Dosch’s performance that matches Macaigne’s. Yet, while the actors in Triet’s subsequent films are no less skillful, they get much less leeway. Dispensing their lines and hitting their marks, they fulfill roles rather than creating events. This gap in achievement is a reminder that the art of directing is in large measure dependent on the practicalities of production. A personalized method is at the root of a personal sense of form, and France’s rigid and centralized systems of production and financing play a part in the homogenizing of talent, the subordination of original impulses to familiar methods, whether assumed or imposed.

In this light, it’s notable that another thing that “Age of Panic” shared with those other films is the backing of an unusual producer, Emmanuel Chaumet, whose company, Ecce Films, specializes in what he calls “self-financing”—making movies without seeking or awaiting official subsidy and the official involvement that goes with it. Triet has attested to Chaumet’s practical audacity in, for instance, letting her film her first feature in public without permits, even at the risk of legal trouble. Her subsequent films have been made more conventionally, and they’ve turned out to be far more conventional. “Age of Panic” stands as one of the exemplary works of modern French cinema, a landmark of what a daringly original filmmaker can do when working in a system of her own. ♦


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