"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."