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A French Criminal Justice Expert Answers Our Questions About Anatomy of a Fall

Photo: Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection

This article was originally published on March 9, 2024. At the 2024 Oscars, Anatomy of a Fall won the award for Best Original Screenplay. On March 22, 2024 it began streaming on Hulu.

Spoilers ahead for the plot and ending of Anatomy of a Fall

[Steel drum cover of “P.I.M.P” blasting] HELLO, I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT ANATOMY OF A FALL!

In Anatomy of a Fall, a Best Picture nominee directed by Justine Triet, Sandra (Sandra Hüller) finds herself on trial after her husband, Samuel, is found dead outside their picturesque chalet (which, incidentally, you can rent on AirBnB, I’m sure your significant other won’t find that unsettling at all!). The surface question of the movie is just how Samuel fell to his death: Was he pushed? Did he jump? Was it all a horrible accident? Sandra’s first language is German and the language of her household is English; unfortunately for her, she is on trial in France, where she already feels like an outsider and where she is at a tactical and linguistic disadvantage.

As an American watching the trial scenes in Anatomy unfold, I found the trial proceedings fascinating and bizarre. Based on my law education (I have seen My Cousin Vinny many times), trials are mostly lawyers yelling “OBJECTION.” Witnesses, like properly-raised children, only speak when spoken to, the judge wears one of those goofy graduation gowns, and lawyers wear suits —  in fact some of our finest, most effective attorneys dress slutty in court, for feminism. In Anatomy, on the other hand, judges and lawyers wear goofy graduation gowns, plus frilly little collars. And the trial itself is basically a free-for-all: Witnesses and the accused argue with each other right over the heads of their (hot) lawyers and no one really objects to anything, including accusations like (and I’m paraphrasing only slightly), “Your husband wasn’t suicidal, he told me he just hated his ***** wife.”

I kept wondering: Wait, is that allowed? Is that how they do things in France? To find out, I called up Jacqueline Hodgson, a professor at Warwick School of Law in England and an expert on comparative criminal justice, author of the book French Criminal Justice: A Comparative Account of the Investigation and Prosecution of Crime in France. She thought the film was “brilliant” and extends her sympathies to its confused American viewers.

Thematically, it’s very important in the movie for Sandra’s character to be tried in a foreign language — to not be able to really defend herself in the language with which she is most comfortable. There are a few moments, though, where she reverts to English, and a court translator steps in for everyone else. In real life, would she not get a translator for the whole procedure?
That was a bit strange! She could have had a translator for the whole thing. There wouldn’t be an expectation that if that’s not your native tongue, you would have to bumble along. It’s an absolute fair trial right that you’d be able to do this in your own language.

But also the translator in court can be a really strange barrier. If you’re being interviewed by the police, having a translator can give you a bit of a buffer, or breathing time, in between their questions and your answer. But in trial, it’s really tedious. Everything takes twice as long. You lose the flow. So a lawyer won’t like it, because they will have to keep pausing when they cross-examine you. And for you to tell your story, it interrupts the flow if someone keeps stopping to translate. So if you were that character, would you have preferred as much as you could to speak in French? Her French was really good but if it’s not your mother tongue, it seems like it’s not a good idea. You always risk saying things not the right way.

In the film, before the trial, there’s this official reenactment process at Sandra and Samuel’s house, overseen by a judge. I was surprised to see a judge so involved in all this pre-trial stuff. In American court, my understanding is you never see the judge outside of court and they don’t participate in any sort of pre-trial investigation at all. What’s that about?
The judge who was present visiting the scene and reenactments, that is the investigating judge: the juge d’instruction, the pre-trial judge. And at the court, you would have seen the trial judges — a panel of three, chaired by a woman, in this case. That’s the iconic representation of French justice, rather like the jury in the American criminal justice system.

So because this was potentially a homicide, it has to go to the juge d’instruction for the pre-trial investigation. That judge will delegate the majority of the investigation to the police. But interestingly, they cannot delegate any of the questioning of the accused to the police once the case has passed to them. It’s completely different to America or Britain.

The model there is a model of truth-finding, and the idea is that you, as the accused person, along with the public prosecutor and the victim, all can feed into that investigation, and both the accused person and the victim can each be represented by a lawyer. The parties can all try to contribute to the investigation by suggesting lines of enquiry to the juge d’instruction. “We saw this guy, Bill, he was at the scene, he always said he wanted to **** that person.” The juge d’instruction will decide whether to pursue these or not — and has to give reasons if they decide not to. The court relies heavily on the dossier of evidence provided by the judge. But it’s an interesting model. In North America, you, as the accused, can’t contribute to the investigation. It’s only at trial that the defense gets a chance to chip in and steer things.

Photo: Le Pacte

Does the juge d’instruction’s findings carry more weight than others’?
Yes, because it’s understood by the court to be the product of a judicial investigation — not simply the assertion of a more partisan party. That’s especially true of the defense lawyer who only represents the interests of the accused. The public prosecutor carries more weight as they are a judicial officer—not in the same way as the fully independent juge d’instruction or trial judge — but they are seen as less partisan and more public interest centered than the lawyer.

Sandra and Samuel’s son Daniel gets this court-appointed babysitter who follows him home and makes sure he doesn’t speak to his mother. Is that a common practice? I was amazed by the sudden introduction of a random adult tasked with protecting the testimony of someone young and vulnerable. 
I spoke with a French colleague who hadn’t ever come across that, and neither had I. And just the cost of that, I would be very surprised if that happens very often, if only because the French justice system, just like every other one, is really strapped for cash, and she would have been paid for by the state.

At the pre-trial hearing, the court decides to let Sandra out on bail. We’re told in the movie that that’s unusual in these cases. What did you make of that development? 
There should be a presumption that you can be released on bail unless you’re a flight risk or a concern that you could interfere with witnesses. The whole parent-child relationship, and the damage that would be done in removing either the child or the mother from the home, that damage outweighs the risk.

The other thing is that when I’ve talked to instructing judges during my own research, they’ve said to me something quite funny given the presumption of innocence — “We would never remand someone in custody if we thought they were innocent.” So their way of approaching it would be, if we think this person is probably going to get convicted, it’s reasonable to hold them, whereas if they think this person won’t be convicted, they don’t want to imprison them in that time before their trial.

So they let Sandra out on bail because they don’t think she’s a flight risk. There’s a certain kind of trust in her. She’s been very clearly asserting her innocence. In a ****** case, quite often, someone is remanded in custody, but not always.

Baseline question but: Do the accused have the presumption of innocence in the French justice system? Almost everyone at the trial seemed intent on proving Sandra’s guilt. 
Yes, absolutely they do. And I wonder if people kind of have that impression because in North American and Wales, it’s an adversarial party-driven system, in which the two parties determine the contours of the case and the judge has this much more umpire-type role. France’s is an inquisitorial system, because the model is of a single inquiry into the truth, rather than two parties presenting opposing versions for the judge to then decide which is correct. So it’s very different.

I feel like that brings us to this bigger existential question of: which system is more just? Which is more likely to produce a fair outcome? Is it just my own bias of having grown up with one system that this other system seems much less appealing?
The thing to remember with both types of trials is: they are absolute ideals. Of course in the U.S. there are hardly any trials. The system is completely dominated by plea-bargaining. And in England and Wales, guilty pleas make up the majority; very few go to trial. And similarly in France, a judicial investigation like we saw in the film happens in only around one to two percent of cases. What we see in Anatomy of a Fall is very much that rarefied ideal of criminal justice. Just like a jury trial is for your and my system, the judicial investigation is the absolute gold standard in France.

And that all sounds really lovely! Rather than having lawyers in court arguing black is white and night is day, where neither party is interested in the truth because they’re only interested in winning. Whereas the French system is about the truth. But that’s not how the French system works in practice. In practice, there’s actually very little difference between the two systems.

The big centerpiece of the movie is this dramatic recording that was taken without Sandra’s knowledge or consent. Watching that I thought, wait, is France a single-party consent state? Is this recording even admissible? In the United States, whether or not you could even admit that recording would’ve been a huge part of the story. In Anatomy of a Fall, it’s like, oh, we have this tape. Just press play!
Absolutely. In France because you want to bring in as much information as you can and you don’t want to be hooked up in this system of what can go in and what can’t. The idea being, it’s not going to a jury, it’s going to a judge. And the judge can determine what weight to apply to that evidence.

Photo: Neon

The physical structure of the courtroom feels very gladiatorial because it’s partly in the round. Is that just what court looks like in France? Why is the advocate general — who is leading this questioning of witnesses and is Sandra’s opposition — so much higher than the accused?
That’s a feature of North America, that the lawyer sits beside her client. In France, the accused will be separated off and everything goes on around her. The judges will be raised, and that’s quite symbolic about their position. And even at the beginning of the 1990s, the prosecutor used to also be on that same level as the judges. That architecture of the courtroom is really important, where they sit and what they wear.

Yes, tell me more about their robes.
The robes just go over their attire. I was really surprised in France that often, particularly the defense lawyers, were dressed really casually sometimes under their robes. Coming into court in flip-flops or something. My stereotype of the French is that they’re really stylish! But they’re not necessarily stylish in court.

During the trial, the advocate general asks so many invasive and suggestive questions. It seemed so out of pocket, all this salacious stuff: “Did you know she was BISEXUAL?!” And of course, my American response to that is, why isn’t someone constantly saying “objection”?
I think that’s quite realistic! You won’t have lawyers jumping up and saying “objection” — that’s a very North American thing. Really, the judge is running the show, and you wouldn’t object to what the judge is saying. The judge might object to your questions. And they have a lot of latitude. They make comments that are sometimes inappropriate and they ask questions that are maybe not relevant.

Lawyers don’t play such a massive role in the French criminal justice system at all. Lawyers are super-important in North America. In the French system much, much less so. The judge and advocate general are much more important. And the defense lawyer is sort of the poor relation.

One of the other things that I found really striking is that the advocate general could go from interviewing a witness — say, the journalist who was trying to interview Sandra at the very beginning of the movie — and then they can just pop over and ask the accused a question. It’s not like the American system where one person is being questioned at a time. And when Samuel’s therapist is on the stand, Sandra and the therapist are able to talk to each other. In France, can everybody just talk to everybody else at any time? 
Not quite. In North America, you’re right, you question one person and the accused will testify, and that’s it. In the French trial, the accused gets to contribute to her own trial a lot more. She gets to say, “Hold on, that wasn’t right,” and she can comment on someone else’s testimony. And it’s also a principle that the accused has to have the last word at the trial as well. So it’s part of that different model of truth-seeking, rather than an adversarial one that very strictly controls the boundaries of who can say what and when. It’s not exactly a free for all.

The other thing that’s really shocking for North American and British audiences is that the judge constantly speaks to the accused directly. In North America you’re always protected by the lawyer so you don’t say something that can get you in a muddle.

I feel like it would be so stressful as the accused to never be able to just exhale. It’s like you’re always on the witness stand as long as you’re in the room.
But also, think about how stressful it is if you have to sit there listening to someone saying something about you that isn’t true and you don’t get to correct it. That would be very stressful. In adversarial systems, I think it’s actually quite hard, ironically, for the accused to participate in her own trial. The only way it will happen is through her lawyer. The defense can cross-examine and challenge and maybe the accused will whisper to their lawyer, this is nonsense, ask them about this. But that’s it.

It also feels so prudish and not French for the advocate general to be so lame about Sandra and Samuel’s open marriage and Sandra’s affairs! He’s so scandalized by the idea that Samuel would have known about, and in some way condoned, Sandra’s other ****** relationships. I thought the French were supposed to be cool about that sort of thing.
I wouldn’t say that France is really cool about things like that. If she’d been a man, it may have been different. But as a woman? I think France still has a bit of a way to go in terms of feminism and women’s rights, for sure.

As a writer, the part that really made my heart rate skyrocket was when they just took Sandra’s novel and they put her book on trial. “Well, look, she wrote about a ****** in fiction. She must be a murderer.” 
I guess it just shows the range of almost anything going in as evidence. I was pretty uncomfortable with it. That felt very much like dramatic license.

What did you make of Daniel’s testimony? He does this unsupervised experiment on Snoop (Palm Dog winner Messi) and gets to give this very moving monologue about a memory of his dad, without any real guardrails on his testimony. 
What struck me about Daniel’s testimony as a bit unusual is, normally, you couldn’t sit in on the trial, hear what everybody else says, and then testify. It’s a slightly weird thing, because he never would have delivered that second load of testimony if he hadn’t heard everything at the trial. I was thinking: would that be allowed? They might think what he’s saying is in some way tainted or influenced by the rest of it. But in the interest of the truth-seeking role, even though it’s a little bit out of the usual order of events, maybe they’d have permitted it.

So — spoiler alert — Sandra gets acquitted. Did that seem like a realistic outcome from the trial you saw? And do you think she did it?
I thought the film was very clever in that — I don’t know about you, but there was a point in the film where I wondered, did she do it? It wasn’t clear to me all the way through that she was innocent. I thought it was quite nice that it kept that bit of dramatic tension. In terms of the verdict, I was ready for it to go either way.

I came away thinking, no, she didn’t do it. And I started out thinking that, too. Did that seem a realistic thing given the trial we’d seen? I think so. I felt like the outcome was a fine balance, it wasn’t a slam dunk either way. And that’s realistic. That’s what trials are like. You often genuinely don’t know quite which way it’s going to go.

Okay, this is gossipy, but it seems pretty clear that Sandra and her lawyer have some kind of history. The actors have done interviews where they’ve disclosed that they did, in fact, shoot a *** scene, but it got cut. I kept waiting for someone at the trial to say, “Are we not going to talk about how he’s sleeping with his client?” I am curious what you make of the fact that they have at least some kind of personal relationship in addition to being lawyer-client. Would that have made her more vulnerable in court if the other side had found out about it?
I thought about that. Would the other side say it’s some conflict of interest and he couldn’t represent her personally? But would you say that you couldn’t represent a brother or a cousin? It might have put you in a weak position because you might challenge that person’s professionalism, to say they had ulterior motives or they weren’t being dispassionate. But dramatically, I thought it was kind of an interesting thing in the trial. Because from her point of view, is that actually the best person to represent you? Someone who has a personal investment?

In a hypothetical scenario in which you found your husband dead outside your mountain home under mysterious-but-suspicious circumstances, would you want the mountain home in question to be in France? Or do you think you’d prefer to be tried under a different justice system? 
Good question! I think I would instinctively prefer the system in England and Wales with which I’m more familiar — for a number of reasons. You are always at a disadvantage being investigated/tried in a language that is not your mother tongue. We saw that in the film: She seemed much more vulnerable when speaking in French, as this was her weakest language.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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