For a long time in France, Jean-Louis Trintignant had been hailed as the country's greatest actor–until Gérard Depardieu came along. His early competition had been with Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo, who had largely gone for showier roles.
Trintingant, the son of wealthy Provence industrialists, had always steered towards quality films. Ultimately, the astoundingly prolific Depardieu would take on the mantle as France's biggest star by performing in a wider array of genres. Now Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winning, Oscar-nominated Amour has again put Trintignant front and centre stage.
At the Cannes awards ceremony last year, when the octogenarian (far less mobile since a 2007 motorcycle accident) walked through the back entrance, the crowd erupted into the kind of applause rarely seen at the festival. Even if Trintignant, who had previously won Cannes' best actor prize for Costa-Gavras's Z, would lose out to Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt, he would win in last December's European Film Awards where Amour also took out best film, best director and best actress for his co-star Emannuelle Riva. Looking chipper as he told the crowd by video-link that he was unable to attend as he was performing on stage, he admitted how his work with Haneke had invigorated him both personally and as an actor.
[ Watch: Emmanuelle Riva discuss her role in Amour ]
In the past 15 years, Trintignant has only had a small part in one other film, 2003's Janis and John, where he had appeared alongside his daughter, Marie. Her violent death later that year following a domestic dispute with her boyfriend, Noir Désir singer Bertrand Cantat, in a hotel in Lithuania, where she was shooting of a movie about the French novelist Collette, could have put her father off movies for life. The media frenzy following the case put him off the media too.
Now rarely one to give interviews, the reclusive Trintignant, who lives in a remote French farmhouse, granted spare interviews in Cannes. A German television journalist told me it had been the first time an interviewee had administered a diabetic injection before they began, and Trintignant would prove rather surprising when we spoke as well.
Why did you grow tired of cinema?
JLT: I'm a theatre actor. I think actors really get a lot more out of the theatre than cinema. Also I think there's no one at the moment like Bergman and Fellini. The satisfaction of coming back to do Amour was mostly for the director. He's the best in the world right now.
What attracted you to work with him?
I immediately wanted to do a film with him after I watched his movie Caché (Hidden). I've since seen all his other films.
Can you compare working with him to working with Eric Rohmer, your director on My Night at Maud's (1969)?
Rohmer and Haneke share the same approach to music in films. They both like music to be integral to the scene and not added. Hitchcock and many American directors use music to heighten the action. Though, Haneke is more of a complete filmmaker. Rohmer was less of a perfectionist and knew less about all the different aspects of cinema, whereas Haneke knows about the lighting, the camera and directing the actors. He's really got a handle on everything that's going on.
Certain critics regard Bernardo Bertolucci's fascist era movie The Conformist (1970) to be the best film ever made. What do you think?
When the critics say I'm good, I always agree and when they say I'm bad, I don't agree. [Laughs] Joking aside, I recognise that critics are often right about many things and I have to agree that up until Amour, The Conformist had been the best film I'd been in. Now it's Amour.
I think Haneke's a better director than Bertolucci, though Bertolucci is a great director as well. I think Haneke's the best director I've ever worked with and his talents go even beyond what he himself realises.
Is Haneke as demanding and exacting as reports indicate? He has a love of doing many takes.
He has that reputation but l told him I don't like to do too many takes and he respected that. So sometimes we only did a single take and that's wonderful for an actor.
There's a touching scene where a pigeon flies into the apartment where your Georges character lives with his ailing wife, Anne. What did the scene represent?
The scene represents a way of expressing the love and tenderness he has for Anne. The pigeon comes in from outside and he strokes it, is kind with it. But it was a difficult scene to shoot and it took two days. I had a broken wrist and was wearing a splint and Haneke made me take it off. Many scenes were difficult because of the emotional impact too, so there was a lot of suffering. But there's a joy that you get through suffering for a scene. I think actors are bits of masochists. It's not just joy, but through the pain there is also pleasure and we can say that about life as well as love.
How do you stay young at heart?
It's probably my work that keeps me young because as actors we don't say we go to work, we say we go to play. I think very often we have the soul of a child and it keeps us young and we're always marvelling at things. I'm fortunate to have that in me; you can't really force that type of thing.
What could the young Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was in Cannes for Claude Lelouch's 1966 Palme d'Or winner, A Man and A Woman, say to the actor here today?
I think I was more handsome then [chuckles] but it might be a little ridiculous to compare the two films. Haneke's so precise and everything is written in advance, whereas Lelouch would let us improvise and all the dialogue was pretty much made up by the actors, which was a lot of fun. Then I went on to do My Night at Maud's, which again was very precise, very written, which I also enjoyed. Basically, I don't have one particular way I like to approach acting. I just really enjoy acting.
Did Amour draw on your love of theatre given that the action took place largely between two people in their home?
It's true that the theatrical and sparse aspect of Haneke's project interested me as a theatre actor. I think film actors often act too much and overdo it. There's really no need to explain so much and Haneke understands this. For an actor, theatre is more interesting; for a director I can understand that cinema is very interesting to create. It's the director's vision and of course that can be beautiful when it works. There are some wonderful beautiful films, but I'd say overall we make way too many films. Out of every 1000 films there may be 50 that are interesting. In my own case, I've made about 130 films and probably only about 20 of them are really good and the rest of them should never have been made. But you just can't know that beforehand. It's like for a painter–he has the image of the painting in his head but when it comes out, maybe it's no good in the end. Maybe you've just got to try it though.
Will you make more films?
Maybe, but I think not. I don't want to make a career as a cinema actor. I want to be an actor in the theatre.
Do you favour euthanasia? At which point is a life no longer worth living?
If I knew what was on the other side then maybe I'd be able to answer that question. If I knew it was just like sleeping and it was eternal sleep then I'd go for it, but I'm just not sure.
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France, Germany, 2012
Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva