Oscar-nominated Anatomy of a Fall is masterclass in multilingual life

The film’s memorable scenes show how speaking multiple languages can be a symbol of compromise, challenges, and power dynamics

A view of French film director Justine Triet
French director Justine Triet, whose film has been recognised by multiple international awards, has showcased the challenges and idiosyncrasies of a multilingual household
Published Last updated

French film Anatomy of a Fall, which has been nominated for five Academy Awards, stands out not only for incredible directing and acting performances, but also for its deft handling of multiple languages.

The film, called Anatomie d’une chute in French, is directed by French filmmaker Justine Triet, and has been nominated for Academy Awards (nicknamed the ‘Oscars’) including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.

Language as symbol of power

Sandra Hüller in particular - who has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar - delivers a blistering performance as a trilingual (at least) woman from Germany (also called Sandra) who lives in a remote chalet in France, with a French husband (played by Samuel Theis) and their French-speaking son (played by Milo Machado-Graner).

Finding herself accused of murder, she has to defend herself in a French court, and shows the multilingual dexterity - as well as the challenges - that speakers of multiple languages often face.

She begins the court session in French before asking to switch to English due to the complexity of the language she wants to use. She also suggests that she prefers to respond in English because of the emotion involved, and the challenges in recalling and explaining the events.

However she is actually originally German. Neither French nor English is her mother tongue.

The court then shows the challenges of having a lawyer asking questions in French, and a defendant answering them in English, and the translation happening in between.

Although Sandra’s character is shown to answer questions fairly confidently, the mismatched languages perhaps demonstrate the unequal power dynamics of the courtroom, and its possible impact on the outcome.

Language as compromise?

Another memorable scene includes a discussion of the meaning of different languages within families and households.

In a flashback to an argument between Ms Hüller’s character and her French husband, the pivotal scene shows how the couple speaks English together, despite both being able to speak French.

The two talk about the compromises - or not - that they have made as a couple, and their belief that each ‘wants things their own way’. Sandra hits back at her husband’s accusation by saying that she has made compromises not only by living in France (her husband’s country), but also in the fact that they are meeting each other ‘in the middle’ and speaking English.

In this way, the film shows how Sandra uses English as a symbol of her belief that she and her husband have tried to find common ground between their two differing backgrounds (because he is not speaking French, and she is not speaking German).

Music as communication

The film also uses music as a powerful way to convey emotion without language.

This includes a super-loud cover of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. by German funk group the Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band - which comes to be seen as symbolic of the couple’s disagreements - and their son’s learning of a dramatic piano piece (Chopin's fourth prelude) from memory over the course of the film.

The son’s eye condition also adds another dimension to the ways in which people communicate and how they remember events, with and without language. In a compelling line, the son says: “I know what I heard.”

Language as a symbol?

Notably, the son only speaks French in the film (even though we are led to believe that he may understand English).

He is questioned repeatedly by investigators in French and also spoken to by the case’s judge in French. In some ways, he could be seen as the ‘neutral party’ in a household often strained by tension between two fiercely independent, multilingual halves of an international couple.

Children of a multilingual household, multilingual couples, or families who have moved from their home countries to another place, may recognise some of the challenges and idiosyncrasies highlighted by this memorable-yet-troubling film, which has been widely recognised during this year’s awards season.

In an interview with FranceInfo after the Oscars nominations were announced, director Justine Triet said: “It is very moving to be able to share this and to be all together in these nominations…It is a wonderful thing to travel with this film, to see the reactions, the people who tell me about their lives, who say to me: It feels like you put cameras in my own home... It’s bigger than us.

"I don't think the film belongs to us any more…and that is the wonderful thing about creating something in art. It’s when something no longer belongs to us that others take it on.”

Director: ‘I’m overwhelmed’

The film has successfully squared up to major blockbusters including Barbie, Oppenheimer and Poor Things, prompting Ms Triet to comment: “I had never really imagined all of this…We spent eight months locked up in a small room asking ourselves lots of questions, with lots of doubts.

“I rarely cry, but I have been overwhelmed,” she said.

As well as its Oscar nominations, it also won big at the Golden Globe Awards on January 8, taking home awards for Screenplay of a Motion Picture, Foreign Language Film, Drama Motion Picture, and Best Actress in a Drama Motion Picture.

It also triumphed at the Lumière Awards in France on January 22, winning Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress for Ms Hüller; and also received nods from the BAFTAs, including for Best Actress, Best Film, Best Editing, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Casting.

Related articles

2023 was a good year for French cinemas: The top ten films
5 French films to watch in December to improve your French
Seven films set in France (and only one is in Paris)