Monday, February 5, 2024

In Court and at Dinner: Anatomy of a Fall and Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros

Milo Machado Graner in Anatomy of a Fall.

The gripping French film Anatomy of a Fall may be the most unconventional courtroom thriller I’ve ever seen. When Samuel Maleski is found dead beneath the attic window of his chalet in the French Alps, his wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Müller) is charged with murder. The case put together by her legal team – Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), who is an old friend, and Nour Boudaoud (Saadia Bentaïeb) – is that he jumped, and Sandra claims that his behavior since their eleven-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) was hit by a motorcycle, seriously damaging his optic nerve, has veered into depression and that one incident where he passed out drunk may well have been a suicide attempt. (She wondered if the white spots she saw in his vomit could have been undigested pills.) But the case of the prosecution challenges this theory because of the position of the blood spatter on the snow where he fell and a tape the police found of an argument between husband and wife, which he recorded the day before he died.

In the exciting 1998 social problem melodrama A Civil Action, based on Jonathan Harr’s non-fiction bestseller, the judge (John Lithgow) in a class action suit against a pair of chemical companies devises a strategy for litigating the case that draws on a manufactured narrative as a metaphor for the facts. His infuriating substitution is a particularly weird case of the way in which, in a criminal proceeding, the truth is often irrelevant. A Civil Action is an entertainment that treats this idea as a clever plot point, but Anatomy of a Fall is a serious dramatic – and, I would say, philosophical – investigation of the distance between a quest for the truth and the actual aim of a trial. There’s even a scene where the young woman (Jehnny Beth) appointed by the court to live with Sandra and Daniel until the verdict – to ensure that his testimony won’t be compromised by his proximity to the defendant – fumbles as she tries to suggest to the baffled boy how to work through his confusion about all that he’s hearing every day in court.

Anatomy of a Fall focuses on the incompatibility of the complexity of human relationships and the substance of a trial where the agenda of the prosecution is winning a case. It’s not just that the prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz) refuses to acknowledge the possibility that the behavior of both the defendant and the dead man could be interpreted in any way that doesn’t point to her guilt, but that his arguments are sometimes unreasonable – in the ways that popular opinion tends to fall for even though the official representative of the legal system should and probably does know better. Sandra is a successful novelist whose books play with the overlap of fact and fiction, and in one brief section in her most recent one she built on an idea that Samuel, also a writer but one who struggled with writer’s block, had discarded. Though he gave her permission to use it and she took it in quite a different direction, he threw it back in her face during the recorded argument and accused her of plundering his work. The prosecutor eagerly takes the dead man at his word, as if everything people say in the heat of anger is indisputable evidence. Moreover, he uses the violence of a character in Sandra’s novel to incriminate her, as if there were no distinction between a writer and a character she created. And it isn’t just the prosecutor: Samuel’s psychoanalyst reports the accusations he made against Sandra in his sessions as if they were the pure truth, and the cop who found the tape is so biased against her that his testimony damages her case in unfair ways that evidently are permitted by the French judicial system. (The movie’s depiction of the quirks in that system, which are at least as unsettling as the quirks in our own, should intrigue an American audience.) Because the defendant is allowed to interact with prosecution witnesses, Sandra protests against the shrink’s testimony, arguing that his presentation of what he insists are facts about his patient’s relationship with his wife is really the magnification, intensified by strong emotion, of one small part of that relationship, and her protest is eloquent. But she’s in an impossible bind here: on trial for murdering the man whose psychiatrist insists, based on that small part that is the only part he knows, on demonizing her. 

The style of Anatomy of a Fall is cinéma vérité, and at first the director, Justin Triet (who co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur Harari), seems to take a cooled-out approach to the material. But her refusal to melodramatize it ends up being not only more authentic but also more powerful, as it places the difficulties of the couple’s relationship and the way in which the process skews the truth front and center. The film is exasperating in a good way – in a way that movies (and certainly courtroom movies) seldom are because it refuses to downplay the way a justice system militates against the possibility of getting justice. And often it’s heartbreaking, especially during the flashback occasioned by the playing of the tape in court and, increasingly as the movie goes on, in the scenes where Triet focuses on Daniel as he listens to the testimony against his mother and revelations of their private life that no eleven-year-old should have to be exposed to. The movie is impeccably acted, and Müller deserves all the praise she has received for her starring performance, but the work Triet does with the young actor Milo Graner is remarkable.

The kitchen of La Maison Troisgros from Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros.

The most sheerly enjoyable experience I’ve had at any movie released in the last year was at Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros, Fred Wiseman’s four-hour documentary about a legendary restaurant, recipient of three Michelin stars, situated in a hotel on the Loire River about an hour outside Lyon, France. César Troisgros, who runs the kitchen, represents the fourth generation of the culinary family; his great-grandfather opened it and his father, Michel, still operates as the host, wandering from table to table to greet old friends, and as the final arbiter on matters of taste. In one scene Michel instructs a novice chef on which volumes in the kitchen library to consult when determining how to cook a tricky lamb dish; in another, he passes judgment on the mystery of how to balance sweetness and spiciness in a kidney dish made with passion fruit. (The day I saw the picture, the audience laughed merrily when Michel devoured an entire plate in order to decide whether his initial impression of the kidney dish, based on just a mouthful, could be trusted.)

Wiseman never uses voice-over narration or explanatory text on the screen; he’s always trusted the principle that if you bring the audience deep enough into the inner workings of a place, whether it’s the Kansas City Police Force or Central Park, they’ll wind up with a profound and precise understanding of it. In Menus-Plaisirs we do get a history of Les Troisgros, close to the end, by chance, because Michel, who loves to talk, sketches it for one of the tables he pauses at on his promenade through the restaurant. It’s a bonus – in more than one way, since he’s such a wonderful, vivid screen presence.

The restaurant isn’t in crisis and the Troisgros men aren’t self-destructive (like the subject of Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, the last memorable food documentary I saw). There’s certainly less conflict in Menus-Plaisirs than in any other of Wiseman’s explorations of institutions. (He’s released about fifty since 1967.) In a way, Menus-Plaisirs is as unconventional a Wiseman documentary as Anatomy of a Fall is as a courtroom drama. It has an air of serenity, emerging from the gorgeous rural setting on the other side of the enormous glass windows, from the unrushed, convivial atmosphere, and of course from the magnificent food, which, like the landscape, is sensuously captured by the cinematographer, James Bishop. Anyone who is interested in restaurants and the preparation of food – that is, pretty much everyone I hang out with – is likely to be as enthralled as I was with the details of how one of the greatest restaurants in the world is run, for example how it satisfies the complicated individual needs and restrictions of its guests.

So many people have acknowledged through the years that Fred Wiseman, who turned ninety-four last month, is an enduring American treasure that I’m almost embarrassed to repeat it. But I don’t think it’s possible to say enough good things about him. In Menus-Plaisirs we see a side of him that he doesn’t usually share. The movie glows with good feeling – not just his trademark generosity toward his subjects but a joy in the environment he’s chosen, this time, to trek through with his camera. I know Wiseman a little, through mutual friends and because we once lived in neighboring towns. I haven’t seen him in years but about a decade ago I sent him an enthusiastic review I’d written of one of his movies and I got a reply from Paris, where, he explained, he was now living.  “Do you ever get to Paris?” he asked me. “I have a great restaurant list!” Making Menus-Plaisirs must have blissed him out. Watching the movie, you don’t doubt it.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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