PARIS — Up four old, crooked flights of stairs in her apartment building with no elevator, Emmanuelle Riva sits wrapped in a thick, woven, poncho-like sweater. Warm light streams through colorful windowpanes into her narrow living room, where Riva lives alone, and she's just turned off a pot of boiling water for tea.
More than half a century ago, she exploded onto the screen with her mesmerizing interpretation of a modern beauty haunted by love and war in the classic "Hiroshima Mon Amour." And at age 85, "I'm still a great savage," she announces.
Meaning? "I don't obey every demand. A savage is someone who goes off into the woods and does what she wants," says the actress who stars with another giant of the French screen, 81-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant, in Michael Haneke's critically acclaimed French-language drama "Amour" (Love), opening in U.S. theaters Dec. 19.
After all, "retirement is not a word!" belts out Riva, her back stiffening, after confirming she still high-tails it to the forest when it suits her. "If I remember correctly, I was, how do you call it? Subversive," she adds, with a lighthearted laugh that breaks through more serious tangents about fleeting existence, the spinning universe and our fast-paced lives within it. "I've calmed down a little — well, sort of."
Less a form of entertainment than an engulfing experience, "Amour," which won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or for best picture this year, is both a heartwarming and tragic look at an elderly couple's love as they intimately struggle with the strange business of aging, and the body as it unsparingly falls apart. Both French actors, whose moving performances have been praised as much as the vision of the film's director, make it clear that "Amour" is a milestone in their long careers, practically a blessing.
Riva plays an elderly, cultivated pianist whose body suddenly goes into paralysis, repeatedly freezing for a few minutes. After treatment, she is left partially paralyzed. Her mind also slowly takes its leave, as her husband and fellow musical connoisseur, played by Trintignant, cares for her alone.
Both actors are deeply grateful for the late-career opportunity to work with Haneke, and they discuss their ideas about performance with a mixture of depth and whimsy.
"At 84, what happened to me with 'Amour' was un-hoped for," says Riva, a published poet who has appeared in some 40 films, including Georges Franju's "Thérèse Desqueyroux" and Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Blue." "I was ready for it!" Pausing between each word, she adds in French: "I. Was. Completely. Ripe... Like when I got the role for 'Hiroshima.' I was also absolutely, down to the minute, READY."
However, it took some prodding for Trintignant to accept the role. Although he had acted in some 130 films, it had been 16 years since he had worked on a movie, except for one small role, says the star of Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist," Eric Rohmer's "My Night at Maud's" and Claude Lelouch's "A Man and a Woman."
"I think our real trade is in theater. We do movies a little out of vanity and cupidity ... that's why I do them," Trintignant says with a half-smile on another day, resting on his cane in the lobby of a Montmartre hotel. He became one of France's dashing young celebrities in the 1950s when he dated Brigitte Bardot, and he played opposite her and other French beauties: Catherine Deneuve, Anouk Aimée, Romy Schneider.
He is adored in France today for his self-deprecating wit and endearing confessions to various weaknesses; whether they be his long struggle with shyness, which he says acting helped alleviate, or succumbing too easily to women. In addition to his preference for theater, his hesitation to work on this particular film was influenced by the loss of his daughter, who died of injuries after her lover beat her in 2003.
"I've never gotten over it; it didn't happen long ago, the most important dramatic event of my life," he says later in a telephone interview. That's why working on the film "frightened" him, he says, and was difficult. Before filming began, he told "Amour" producer Margaret Ménégoz that he wanted to commit suicide.
Instead of taking that as a no, Trintignant says, Ménégoz told him, "'I understand perfectly well that you want to commit suicide, but do this film first. Kill yourself after. I'll even help you kill yourself.'" After the filming, she promptly asked: "OK, how do we go about it?" the actor recalls. "I said, 'Well [he laughs], let's wait a little.'
"It's true that I was at a time where I saw everything in black, but now those same things are less black than before," says Trintignant, for whom reading and performing poetry as well as living in the southern French countryside with his wife, former rally race car driver Marianne Hoepfner, have helped him find some joy in life. (As a younger man, he also dabbled in professional car racing.)
Trintignant can't be blamed for being initially "scared" of Haneke's subject, which, combined with the ages of its stars and its simple setting (the movie was almost entirely shot in a single bourgeois Parisian apartment), makes for an unusually bracing film, albeit according to several critics, a masterpiece.
For Haneke, 70, one of Europe's leading directors, "Amour" is also something of a departure. His award-winning films, including "Funny Games," "The Piano Teacher," "Caché" and "The White Ribbon," which won the Palme d'Or, along with the Golden Globe's best foreign language film prize for 2009, show the ordinary violence of human nature and can be deeply disturbing. Though "Amour" has some of that dramatic brutality, the film is also about what love can become over time.
In its universal tale, "Amour" also reminds how some of the most seemingly simple, mundane moments are the ones that stick after losing a loved one. So that even after being visited by the ghost of one's wife, there she is at the sink doing the dishes, as on any other day. Naturally, she reminds you to get your coat, and slowly, you both make your way out the door.
Haneke and his actors catch hold of those subtle moments in life, which slip through the daily rhythm of routine, but which form the poetic framework for drama.
"For me, he's the greatest director I've ever filmed with," says Trintignant. "I never imagined that a director could be as extraordinary. Perfect." With Haneke, he was also able to "forget the camera" for the first time.
"Often, directors ask us to show what we feel, and with Haneke, no, above all you mustn't show what you feel! You have to just feel, and he does the rest," he says, adding that the experience "made me progress in theater and film.
"I tell myself we always overact... better to be more simple."
Trintignant, as with Riva, is no closer to retirement. Right now, he's on tour with his stage performance of works by three French poets.
Haneke said that he wrote "Amour" with Trintignant in mind for the lead male role but that he had no guarantee he would accept.
"When I had this idea for the film, I told myself, 'He's the only one who can do this,' and I wrote without knowing whether he'd want to do it," the Austrian-born director says in a separate phone interview.
"[Trintignant] has something that is very rare: It's that he always has a secret. He doesn't express everything. There are actors who express every written nuance, and very often it becomes a little flat. He always keeps one part of the character hidden, and it gives it this sort of depth. There aren't all that many actors who have that.... Marlon Brando had it too. Great actors have it," says Haneke, who has followed Trintignant's work since he first saw him at age 17.
Of Riva, Haneke says that when "Hiroshima Mon Amour" came out and became a cult film, "she was extraordinary. So beautiful, emancipated... She wasn't like the pretty girls that we saw everywhere on screen. She was a real woman. And she's remained that way. Often, when French actresses get old, they don't become old women, but old girls. She has stayed a woman, which is rare and beautiful."
He describes her and Trintignant's performances in "Amour" as a kind of "gift." "I wasn't the only one who was touched by certain scenes," he says. "There were moments where nobody was able to speak afterward. We had tears in our eyes and that's rare... but with great actors, it happens sometimes.
"Both of them have an extraordinary discipline. Even if it was tiring and difficult, they never yelled, 'Oh, I'm tired!' They worked like young men."
Trintignant says that as an actor, as with Riva, he values spontaneity. He refuses to perform the same scenes the same way more than once, often to the frustration of his colleagues.
"I have an idea that you should never copy or redo what you've done. You have to find something different every time, and sometimes I get it wrong," he concedes. So some nights onstage, "I'm really bad, and when I'm really good I'm really good," he laughs. "It is a lot more amusing. It gives a chance to grasp at a deeper meaning, a truth, in what we're saying."
To Riva, acting is also about maintaining a "freshness," or "fraîcheur." "Cinema is the art of the instant. It's in the moment. We practice and practice to find that instant of total liberty.... Shhhh... It's hard!"
In part of her attempt at the "difficult balancing act" of "living in the present," which she says is also "part of our work," she likes wandering the streets of Paris, people-watching, striking up conversations. On a chalkboard above the fireplace, she jots down quotes heard over the radio — she doesn't have a television set — about freedom, time and love, by the likes of Victor Hugo, Franz Kafka and Jean Cocteau.
When acting, "you must capture [the role] and hop! Abandon yourself and give yourself over," she says. Performing onstage or for the screen "is something we do, that we live. We don't play act — it's not a game. It's life."
On our first meeting, Riva and Trintignant, sitting near a fireplace in the lobby of a picturesque hotel, are not quite as obvious a couple as they make in the film. She enthuses with earnest contemplation, and he raises his finger to answer a question, waiting his turn and responding with concise honesty while also unable to resist a chance to playfully elicit a few laughs. They disagree about one thing: She prefers film acting after her long career on the stage, he feels the opposite.
But for "Amour," the two came together in perfect harmony.
Before the film, "we didn't know each other personally," says Riva. "But we had the impression that we'd already worked together."
To which Trintignant agrees, later adding: "I think the film might have been better with another actor other than myself."
As Riva's brow furrowed, her argument in protest forming, Trintignant locks eyes and cuts in with a smile: "That said, he [Haneke] did choose rather well for himself."