I have previously had mixed feelings about Justine Triet’s work, but her movie in this year’s Cannes competition, which is a courtroom drama and murder mystery with an unclear title and ending, is highly fascinating. It brought to mind elements of Billy Wilder’s film version of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution and Steven Bochco’s underrated and often overlooked 90s TV show Murder One.
Sandra Hüller portrays the role of Sandra, a thriving and stylish writer (a common character in French cinema) who was born in Germany but currently resides in a charming chalet in the French Alps with her French husband, Samuel Theis. Samuel, a former academic and aspiring writer, is currently facing a career slump and writer’s block, and hopes to improve the family’s finances by turning their chalet into an Airbnb. As he noisily works on renovations upstairs with loud music playing, Sandra’s attempt to give an interview is interrupted and abandoned. She wearily tries to take a nap while her son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) takes their dog Snoop for a walk.
Upon his return, Daniel discovers his father’s lifeless body in the snow outside the chalet, with a severe head injury. Was it a fall from the window? Or was he struck by something on the way down? With Daniel being blind, he is not a reliable witness. Sandra has always blamed Samuel for Daniel’s blindness, as he was responsible for watching him during the accident that caused it. This incident sent Samuel into a downward spiral of anger, fueled by his resentment towards Sandra’s infidelity and her alleged plagiarism of his ideas. As the police quickly arrest Sandra and charge her with murder, she turns to an old friend and possible love interest (Swann Arlaud) to defend her. However, the outcome of her trial may ultimately depend on her blind son, who may have seen nothing but could potentially remember something crucial at any moment.
Hüller’s calm directness as an actor is what gives the film its texture, substance and emotional force. She anchors it in a kind of accessible reality: we naturally sympathise with her, and yet Triet shows us that she is capable of transparent lies, lies which are almost credible because Hüller is such a plausible personality. The men that surround her seem to be over-emotional, more emotional than her — odd, as she is the one facing a prison sentence.
The movie follows a forensic approach to drama, showing the examination of the body and a strange reconstruction of the event by the defense. They drop a dummy from the window to determine if the trajectory and blood spatters incriminate Sandra. The film does not give obvious clues about plot twists and dramatic changes, but maintains a detached perspective. This leaves us wondering if Sandra is guilty until the end. It’s a subtle and slightly somber drama, but with an intellectually stimulating element.