If it hadn’t yielded his most devastatingly compassionate film yet, Michael Haneke might be facing charges of sadism. In Amour, the Austrian director forces the octogenarian actor Jean-Louis Trintignant to confront his own mortality with unflinching brutality. The two leads, Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, are subjected to a barrage of old-age debility (incontinence, dementia, spoon-feeding) after her character has a stroke and he, her husband, nurses her in their Paris flat.
Some have blasted Amour as middle-class exploitation horror — this is what’s waiting for you — but in fact it is the most honest portrait of ageing ever made, grounded by two magnificent performances. Neither actor landed a prize at Cannes, but the film’s Palme d’Or belongs to them as much as to Haneke.
Meeting the reclusive Trintignant in Cannes the day after the film’s unveiling, I imagine that its harrowing residue must be lingering in his psyche. As he says: “Many of the scenes were difficult, because the situations we were in were extreme.” Yet, thanks to Amour, Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red, the French screen legend, 81, has accomplished a hat-trick of truly great cinematic performances.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that he didn’t take the role straightaway: “Did I want to plumb such sad subject matter?” He also wondered how popular a film about the gradual decay of an elderly couple would be, no matter how respected Haneke is. Then he remembered that when Krzysztof Kieslowski asked him to play a voyeuristic recluse in Three Colours: Red, he took it as a cue to explore his own feelings as an ageing man coping with loneliness. He spotted a similar opportunity with Georges, a retired music teacher who adores his wife, Anne, but lashes out with anger, even cruelty, the further she vanishes into helpless indignity.
There was also Haneke to negotiate. Although Trintignant made it clear that he wasn’t prepared to endure the director’s fondness for multiple takes, the Austrian still proved a hard taskmaster, taking two gruelling days to shoot a scene that lasts one minute, in which a pigeon flies into the flat and Georges tries to catch it. It was partly the pigeon’s fault for being unable to take direction, but Haneke wouldn’t allow Trintignant, who had broken his wrist during the shoot, to wear his splint. “I was suffering, but at the same time there’s something exalting about it, a joy that you get through suffering for a scene,” he says. “Actors are masochists.”
Actors might be masochists, but they also love to be showered with praise. Trintignant was determined to impress Haneke, “to show him what I could do”. So, for a painful exchange in which Georges tells his daughter why he won’t allow her into her mother’s sickroom, the actor unleashed the tiger — only to be told by Haneke to dial it down. And when he sought to discuss his character, he was given short shrift, Haneke telling him: “What interests me is the relationship between you and your wife, or you and your daughter. Your character is your problem.” Trintignant now agrees — “He had a precise idea, and he was right” — and says his deflation was short-lived. “Actors don’t see the overall picture. That’s why I say there are no good actors, only good directors. I feel like I’m good in the film, but it’s only because of Haneke.”
Trintignant has had many famous roles: in A Man and a Woman, My Night with Maud, Costa-Gavras’s Z, for which he did win the best-actor award at Cannes, and Roger Vadim’s leering romp ... And God Created Woman, for which he most definitely did not, although sulking in Brigitte Bardot’s buxom presence at least made him a star. He has worked with Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and François Truffaut. Here, he’d have a knighthood and honorary membership of the Garrick Club; in France, they revere him with a cool Gallic reserve. He prefers it that way, having suffered from crippling shyness his entire life. It’s not so bad now, although, he says: “I’m still quite timid. But at one time, it was an illness for me.”
Trintignant, the son of wealthy Provence industrialists, would rather have raced cars for a living, like his uncles, but his parents forbade it. He is dismissive of his screen career — “I have a grand passion for theatre, not cinema” — but he has been prolific, appearing in 130-odd films in a career that began in 1955. “Maybe 20” of those he considers worthwhile; the rest “should never have been made”. Even Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, which made him an art-house heart-throb, he disparages as “a little ridiculous now — although I think I was handsomer in 1969”.
He’s right on both counts. The Conformist, on the other hand, regularly makes best-of lists, and Trintignant is chilling and touching as a damaged fascist bureaucrat. It’s the performance of his that most critics rate above all others. Does he concur? “When the critics say I’m good, I agree,” he replies with a gentle smile. “I recognise that, more often than not, critics are right, and The Conformist was the best film I’ve been in — until Amour.” Why? “Because Haneke is a greater director than Bertolucci. I believe his talents as a film-maker go even beyond what he realises. He’s immense.”
Trintignant’s disinclination to be lured by big-screen offers is renowned. Eric Rohmer had to pester him for two years before he agreed to do My Night with Maud; he turned down the Brando role in Last Tango in Paris. Before Amour, in 15 years he had accepted one small role, in 2003’s Janis and John, opposite his daughter Marie, who was killed the same year by her boyfriend, the rock star Bertrand Cantat. That tragedy certainly kept Trintignant off screens, but a friend’s invitation to watch Haneke’s Caché (Hidden) led him to tell his agent that, should the film-maker call, he’d gladly work with him. A few months later, Haneke did just that.
Even before making Amour, Trintignant was in favour of euthanasia. He claims he would choose it for himself should he ever land in a helpless, humiliated state like Anne’s. “If I knew that what was on the other side was just eternal sleep, I’d go for it,” he vouches.
Now in his quiet dotage, his physical activity curtailed by a motorcycle accident in 2007, Trintignant enjoys a secluded life in a remote French farmhouse. “I adore the countryside, animals, simple country things. I don’t like to see many people. I don’t like flattery or attention.” If Amour ends up drawing the curtain on his celluloid career, you suspect that he won’t be displeased.