Reverse-Engineering Murder: Editing “Anatomy of a Fall”

Anatomy of a Fall editor Laurent Sénéchal has been working as an editor since the early 2000s and is well known for his collaborations with Oscar® nominees Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, collaborating with Justine four times (three narrative features, one documentary) and Harari five times (two narrative features including Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, opening Un Certain Regard in Cannes 2021, and three shorts) over the course of his career.  For this latest film, Laurent had the pleasure of working with both Triet and Harari, with Justine as director and Arthur as co-writer.

Plot Summary for Anatomy of a Fall

Anatomy of a Fall tells the story of a celebrated writer who is put on trial when her husband falls to his death from their secluded chalet. What starts as a murder investigation soon becomes a gripping journey into the depths of a destructive marriage. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023, where it won the Palme d’Or. Anatomy of a Fall also received Oscar® nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay, and won two Golden Globes for Best Non-English Language Motion Picture and Best Screenplay.

In our discussion with Anatomy of a Fall editor Laurent Sénéchal, we talk about:

  • Joining Justine
  • Influencing the audience for unseen characters
  • Turning a thriller into Kramer vs. Kramer
  • Putting a point of view on the flashbacks
  • VFX for vomit

Listen while you read…

Editing Anatomy of a Fall

MF: This is your fifth project, I believe, with Justine Triet going back to 2010. Tell me how you first met, because whatever brought you two together has worked out well for both of you. 

Laurent Sénéchal: It’s not the fifth one, but it’s the fourth one. And among those, we only did her three latest feature films. Justine’s first feature film was edited by someone else and then she came back to me after one documentary we did all together.

I met Arthur Harari at university and edited all of his short films. I edited all of Arthur’s movies and they are a couple. So, one day Justine told me, “I need you” and I came to help the lady after the man. But they are different. It’s nice to work with them because it’s like even if they are working together and they are a couple, they are so different and their movies are so different. That is great for me. 

MF: This movie starts out seeming to be about one thing and then it ends up being about another. When you read the script, was there anything about it that you made specific notes about or you thought might be a challenge once you were in the edit? 

Laurent Sénéchal: I’m an editor with a huge implication when I’m reading the script versions. Because we know each other, Justine and Arthur gave me many versions to read. For this one, it was not like I was suggesting a lot of clever things like, “You should do this or that.” It was rather about, “Wow, it’s great. But when it’s going to be images, are you sure that it’s going to work?”

For instance, in the courtroom argument, I told them, “You have to think about which point of view we are going to need. It’s going to end up feeling long if we only have the sound in the courtroom. But you are doing a flashback here. Are you sure whose point of view it is?” It was questions like that. And they told me, “Yeah, we’re going to do that. We’ll see.” I understood that was a good idea, of course, because it was so vivid. Even if it’s a flashback, it’s catchy. It worked. But there were so many things I noted as warnings when I read the script. 

MF: Were those flashbacks in the earliest iterations of the script? Or was that something that came to be over time as they were developing the script? 

Laurent Sénéchal: They figured out rather early in the process that they needed to have a big scene with images because staying in the courtroom was becoming long. It was also a way to put the character of the dead father into the movie and to build some empathy with him. 

At the end of the movie, we discover that the boy was shocked by what happened to his father, and he picked out memories of his father. You cannot have this emotional end of a movie without having the father existing like that. Also, it was important for the couple to have a discussion to balance things between the man and the woman. 

MF: A big part of this film is a courtroom drama. But I can’t think of any courtroom dramas that this film reminded me of. Did Justine talk to you about certain films or filmmakers that she was drawing from and developing Anatomy of a Fall?

Laurent Sénéchal: She shared many influences. I think she was talking about Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie we love, because it was about the family, the boy, and the couple in the courtroom. We didn’t have any specific thriller movie references. We knew that by not showing what happened, we were beginning it like a thriller movie. Then, every time that you see this woman, you think maybe she is guilty. This was the first thing we did, but it’s like an original crime that we did.

Later in the movie, we wanted not to play that game so much. We knew that it was like a vehicle for us to create a movie more like what John Cassavetes could have done. We wanted the ideologies to be behind this family, this boy and his mother, even if doubts are still there. Of course, it was hard to build, but we wanted to have the audience behind her. We didn’t want to be clever about it, you know? We wanted to bring the audience as far as possible in complexity. To do that, we used the genre of thriller mathematics. That was the starting point. It was a way for us to see where we wanted to go.

We didn’t want to copy courtrooms and justice mechanisms that you see in TV shows. We wanted to be softer about that. Also, we wanted it to feel like pieces of reality. That’s why in the editing we were picking all these players’ first takes. We did that on purpose.

MF: I have to say, there’s not a lot of comedy in this film, but I did laugh when Sandra refers to where she lives as a shithole with the backdrop of the snow-capped French Alps behind her. Please tell me you got to edit on location in the French Alps. If you didn’t, where did you edit?

Laurent Sénéchal: No, no, no. I had this experience with Justine previously on her last two movies. She cannot see an assembly. Simply, she cannot. Not at all. It’s going to be a mess if she doesn’t choose things. She needs to be there at the beginning of the process. It’s a long way to finish the movie, but it’s the best way with her because she cannot not be there. Justine cannot see something that she’s going to improve. She wants to be there. She’s a bit of a control freak. 

Why is she like that? It’s because that is the main way for her to pay attention to the actors’ performances. Acting is the main thing for her. She wants to be sure that she’s choosing the best moments, the best takes, but it’s a huge way to work. Only after we choose the good material do we try to arrange and cut it. 

MF: Do you communicate at all during production? What do you talk about if you do? 

Laurent Sénéchal: I’m looking at the dailies and we are talking maybe once a week. But I’m not close to her because I know that she’s another person when she comes into the editing room. She’s wondering if she should press the reset button on everything. She wants to create something else with all the footage.

Of course, she has some ideas like, “This scene was great. Look at what we did.” But when we are starting a scene, we start with the acting and the golden moments. It’s artisanal and we don’t know where we are going to be at the end of the day. She doesn’t want ideas to compress reality and feelings and acting. Justine starts with the acting. Then, when she has what she thinks is good, we start to have ideas. She wants her movies to be more vivid than clever.

MF: Let’s test your memory a little bit. Do you recall how many days of principal photography were there? 

Laurent Sénéchal: Nine, maybe ten weeks? I don’t know. I don’t remember. 

MF: Ten weeks sounds about right. How long were you in post for? 

Laurent Sénéchal: It was thirty-eight weeks. 

Justine starts with the acting… She wants her movies to be more vivid than clever.

MF: Anatomy of a Fall doesn’t strike me as the kind of movie that needs a lot of visual effect. But sometimes with snow and weather, there can be more than you think. How many effects shots were there and where was most of the VFX work going? 

Laurent Sénéchal: VFX was not huge in this movie. The snow was all real. We used VFX for the dog, for the vomit, and also maybe the snow on the roofs of the chalet. We did a lot of things that are not VFX. It’s when you use the same shot multiple times because you want to fix the pace of the acting and rebuild the shots or scenes. I do a lot of things like that. There were many, many things to do, but it was not a huge amount of VFX work.

MF: So you’ll do in-frame editing tools like Animatte and Fluid Morph to adjust performances and things like that?

Laurent Sénéchal: Yes. I used a lot of tools like that because we wanted to get into the details. We wanted only so much time before she turned her head, or we wanted this look to go on for that long. So we used all those tools to get what we wanted.

MF: I’d like to talk a little bit about guiding the audience, making them feel one way or the other about Sandra and Samuel, whom we don’t meet until later in the film. The opening of the film influences how we feel about the characters. We don’t see Samuel. We just hear that unbelievably annoying song playing over and over again while she’s trying to have a conversation.

In her interview with the student, Sandra says, “I never see anybody. I work from here all day long. Time is not a problem here.” You sort of see Sandra’s frustration, and you also can see how Samuel could make you a little crazy. Was that something that you talked about with Justine? Did you want to make the audience feel one way about Samuel and Sandra at the beginning and then play with those feelings until they get to the end?

Laurent Sénéchal: The main challenge in editing this was how to create the road for the audience, so they could drive to the left and to the right. It was easier because Sandra Hüller became the character. She was already there in the scene. It was a lot of work, but we had everything. It was not tricky. We just had to pay attention. We couldn’t let her become too manipulative or too innocent. It was a way to guide ambiguity without being loud about it.

For Samuel, it was important for us to have him exist as a phantom as much as we could. Even when he is alive, he is a phantom because his body is the music. He’s invasive with his music, but he is also like a shadow. We had this idea in editing to have a title scene with pictures of the family. It was a way to have him exist, and also have an image of him. We have this little scene when Sandra is looking at him on the laptop screen. We don’t have the sound, but there is a complicity between them.

Of course, we didn’t want him to seem too weak. But it was important to see that he had weaknesses. The game was to reverse what stereotypically happens between the man and the woman. 

The end was important. The boy is using his memory to maybe invent something that his father told him in order to help his mother. We’re not sure, and it might be like that in the head of a viewer. It’s funny because that’s what Justine is doing. She’s breaking the rules. Usually, when you have images on the screens, it’s proof. It’s evidence. And for us, it was a way to say, “Pay attention. Life is complex. These images might be in the head of a little boy who is trying to help his mother.”

Pay attention. Life is complex.

MF: In terms of revealing characters, let’s talk about Daniel, the boy. His limited eyesight becomes a factor in the story, but it’s not clear right away. Were you conscious of keeping that information from the audience for a little bit? 

Laurent Sénéchal: It comes in the middle of the police investigation. We knew that it was going to become clear at some point. We tried not to reveal it, as is usual in the movies, in the first fifteen minutes. Usually, you know everything about every character in the first fifteen minutes of a movie. 

For example, in the courtroom, the prosecutor asks the student, “Did you know that she was bisexual?” I asked Justine, “Are you sure you don’t want to have a shot on some guy? Because we are talking about her sexuality. Or maybe we should show the student.” And Justine said, “No, let’s try not to be like that. Today, it could be unimportant. Let’s stay with the prosecutor.” Justine is a bad girl sometimes, and I have to make sure that, even if she’s breaking the rules, we are going to find our rule. I’m always trying to find a balance between all these ideas. Some of them are explosive.

MF: Sandra is isolated. She’s often seen alone, usually in close-ups. We don’t often see her in two-shots when she’s in a scene with somebody.

One of the things that was most striking to me is the weekend before the climax of the trial, Daniel says, “I don’t want my mom in the house with us.” Vincent, her lawyer friend, comes to pick her up and drives her away. They’re having a conversation during that car ride, and the entire time we never see Vincent’s face. It’s not until the final scene in the restaurant that we see Vincent and Sandra in a real two shot. Is that just my interpretation, or do you feel like that was something that you were trying to do?

Laurent Sénéchal: It’s interesting because we didn’t aim to do that, but I can feel that. I didn’t have any say in that, but I have the same feeling. There is something hard inside Sandra at the end, but she’s also released, so it’s peaceful. But there is a strange taste in her mouth and in her mind because she has to come back and it’s hard to face the boy.

MF: A big part of the film takes place in the courtroom. How many cameras did you have in there? And while I’m asking about it, what were they told to focus on? 

Laurent Sénéchal: Often there were only two cameras in the courtroom. Sometimes they were on the same axis, shooting the same angle. I think that’s because it was not an expensive movie. We had to be clever. I used a lot of shots from all those scenes to build some of those things. The amount of footage was not light, but we didn’t have many takes. 

Justin was shooting a lot with the main character. When an actor has a weak moment, she tries harder to get what she wants. But she doesn’t like to say cut. She’ll go again on the scene without cutting. So the material is strange. I always have to adapt and organize the material before editing. That’s hard to do without cutting an assembly. I had to organize really, really quickly.

MF: It seems like Justine purposefully didn’t want to do things that people would expect. Films often will use techniques for compressing time, montage, and things like that. But I don’t feel like you tried to tighten the film up. You let it breathe and that helped bring the audience into the environment. How did you approach the pacing of this film?

Laurent Sénéchal: We had to rebuild a lot of the scenes in terms of the way the boy was existing. We also had to cut a lot of dialog and let the climate of all of this work. Of course, as an editor, I am also always trying to find a better beginning for a movie. 

But Justine told me something that we kept in mind for the entire process. She said, “Even if it’s my last movie, I don’t want to be in a rush. I want to breathe. I want some scenes to be long and carnal. I want the audience to stay there. I’m confident that some of them are going to be with us, so let’s do what we want.”

She didn’t want to be stressed by going fast at the beginning. What she was stressed about was the acting performances. That was intense for her. For example, we spent three days choosing only the good material for the scene when the boy is in front of the judge. There were many options, and we did many versions. That was a way for her not to be in a rush. What was hard was having to go back to the house. When we were in the courtroom, even if the scenes were a bit long, we knew that it was part of the contract between the audience and us. We knew that we were going to have long scenes and that they were going to be harsh sometimes. 

But as soon as we went back into the house, we had to be careful. It was hard to go back and forth between the house and the courtroom. For instance, when the boy is doing all his experiments with the dog and the vomit, it was not like that in the script. That originally came earlier. And many scenes bounced between the house and the courtroom. In the end, we chose to stay longer in the courtroom. 

MF: You did something once that I didn’t see happening anywhere else In Sandra’s rehearsal scene, you fade to black. Was that meant to signify a punctuation or a break? How do you define why you did that? 

Laurent Sénéchal: We had to figure out how to go to the trial. It was not written as it is in the movie. Originally, we cut to the courtroom right after the rehearsal. For me, it was impossible to cut it like that. It felt like we were losing what was good before and also losing the beginning of the courtroom. I wanted to be thinner here. We used the boy when he’s playing the piano and it’s the ellipse of one year passing. That footage was supposed to come at the end, when he hears that his mother is free.

The idea was to make the boy the main focus of the second part of the trial. The sole fade to black is there to give the audience a chance to breathe before going into this second part. We knew that it was going to be harsh. They were going to open up every one of Sandra’s weaknesses. We saw it as a way to be like a musical rest. You pause, and then you go again.

MF: Was Daniel meant to be getting better at that piece over time? Because it didn’t sound like he got much better.

Laurent Sénéchal: Don’t say that!

MF: Just a musical critique. 

Laurent Sénéchal: We had to use these piano scenes differently to have the boy exist more in the first part of the film. He’s important to the movie. Even in the courtroom, we have to see him often. We had to find ways to include the boy so we didn’t lose him.

MF: I want to talk about the USB key fight scene in the courtroom. Samuel has recorded a fight between his parents and we see it play out for a little bit. There is some violence, but we never see it. Did they shoot that part? If so, did you decide that it was more powerful not to see the fight?

Laurent Sénéchal: It was written like that, but the fight was longer. But we figured out that it was better to go back to the courtroom, where words are like weapons. The words that Sandra is saying and the way she acts are the climax. Of course, the fact that violence is not seen is a way to go back to the beginning of the movie. You never see what happens. This scene is like a contradiction. It was a way, I think, to be our own contradiction. 

In order not to lose the audience, we had to find something catchy. We didn’t want to lean on score music. We wanted to have big ideas, even contradictory ideas sometimes, so the audience would be surprised. That scene is like a movie within a movie because it’s a scene in the middle of what we are talking about. It’s about time, couple, balance, and what it means to be an individual in a couple. What is freedom? What is regret?

 MF: The flashbacks that Daniel has are not exactly clear initially. Are we seeing those through his mind? 

Laurent Sénéchal: Yea. We see them while he’s giving his testimony. He’s become the director of the movie. He’s shooting and playing his father and the voice like the voice of the scriptwriter. 

MF: He’s editing it, too.

Laurent Sénéchal: Yeah, of course! But I helped him because we had so many versions of this. He needed a mentor. 

MF: There’s a lot of this film to be proud of. What was your favorite scene from the film to work on? 

Laurent Sénéchal: Wow. It was the argument, and the twenty-minute scene in the trial, where they are talking about literature. The prosecutor is reading Sandra’s previous novel and they are saying, “Is Stephen King guilty? Because he writes novels about killers all this time.”

For me, it’s like talking about movies. We’re talking about more than this story, this couple, and this affair. It’s like talking about today. What is today? Today, if you write something on social media, you can be on a trial for it ten years later. It was a funny moment in a very long scene. And it’s one of the hardest scenes I’ve ever had to edit because it’s so long. I had to be precise and even confident that it was going to work like that. I’m proud to have done it. 

The scene that moves me the most is one of the simplest. It’s where the boy is playing the piano for the last time before testifying. I also like the last scene when he silently looks at his mother when they are reconnecting. Those two moments are moving for me. I appreciate it when a movie stops all the dialog and becomes simple. It’s complex, but you understand everything with only a few looks. I love that.

MF: I think people are recognizing how wonderful this film is and the tremendous work that you did. I wish you nothing but the best this award season. The only thing I’m disappointed about is learning that the dog was VFX. I thought that dog should have got an Oscar. 

Laurent Sénéchal: No, no, he is a great actor. He won the Palm Dog Award at Cannes! We didn’t help the dog, we helped the vomit.

Matt Feury

Matt Feury is host and producer of The Rough Cut podcast, as well as the Sr. Director, Market Solutions – Video & Post for Avid.

Stamp Productions’ Road to an Olympic Campaign for Bridgestone

Red Bull Media House Has Wings to the Cloud

Editing the Disturbing Story of Netflix’s “Baby Reindeer”