Love and tenderness

Touching … (clockwise from main) Emmanuelle Riva plays Anne, who suffers a stroke.
Touching … (clockwise from main) Emmanuelle Riva plays Anne, who suffers a stroke.

She arrives like a grand dame walking onto a cruise liner. Emmanuelle Riva, the veteran French actor who has been making films since the acclaimed Hiroshima Mon Amour more than 50 years ago, carefully chooses a seat and begins to talk.

The translator explains that the delicate Riva, who turns 86 on the day she is up for best actress at the Academy Awards, is concerned that a cushy chair will drain her energy.

Also known for 1961's Leon Morin: Priest and 1993's Three Colours: Blue, Riva could become the oldest actor to win an Oscar for her affecting performance as a retired music teacher, Anne, who has a stroke in Michael Haneke's Amour. The drama, which shows how declining health tests their love, is also up for best picture, director, original screenplay and foreign-language film on Monday (Sydney time). Anne's husband, Georges, is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, 82, whose films have included And God Created Woman, The Conformist and Three Colours: Red.

The obvious first question at an audience with Riva in Paris is about her and Trintignant playing a couple in a film way back in the 1960s. ''Always the same question,'' she says with an amused wave of the hand. ''What actually happened was we shot a movie in Italy.

''It was a sketch movie but we were not in the same episode.''

She cautions with the wisdom of the aged: ''Not everything on the internet is true.''

Riva says playing a couple as devoted as Anne and Georges is more about what happens on set than how they prepared for the film.

''We build our own character on the spot,'' she says. ''Of course, we do talk before. We read the script and we try to dive into it and absorb it as much as possible. But in the craft of acting, you always need to leave room for the unknown.''

Riva's theory is that an actor should know the story and the character, then ''forget everything'' at the start of the shoot.

''You just need to feel the preparation that you've done and you start acting,'' she says.

''I recently read a statement by the great filmmaker Carl Dreyer.

He said, 'I don't ask an actor to perform. I just wait till something happens to him or her that he or she doesn't know is inside them.' That really summarised my view of my job: something happens to me that I don't know that I have inside me.''

But she did learn, from Haneke's visits to a hospital, how to use an electric wheelchair and how a stroke victim walks and talks.

While Riva was impressed with Amour's simplicity and soberness when she first saw it, she was surprised Haneke had cut all the close-ups he had shot with a second camera. She admired that he did that to avoid sentimentality.

''I remember the first scene we shot on set: Michael Haneke came to me and said, 'That's very nice but it's too tender; I don't want any sentimentality.' As soon as he said that, he opened up my mind because at that point, I realised that everything was possible and much more interesting.''

One emotional scene to shoot involved a nurse changing her character's nappy.

''My body was turned on one side,'' Riva says. ''I had a very, very close camera. [The scene] was so humiliating and I was so much inside the character that two tears surfaced in my eyes and ran down my cheeks.

''Many of the crew around me were in tears as well when we were shooting because they could feel this horrible humiliation that I had to undergo. Even Haneke had tears in his eyes.''

But instead of using the close-up with the tears in Amour, Haneke went for the more distant shot. ''He didn't want to invite people to cry,'' Riva says. ''That close shot would have been pushing the button of sentimentality.''

While she won't compare Haneke with other directors she has worked with, Riva is happy to pair Amour with Alain Renais's Hiroshima Mon Amour.

''These are two very strong, very profound films by two auteurs of cinema,'' she says. ''I made Hiroshima Mon Amour when I was 30 and I made Amour when I was 84.

''In between I worked with many other directors and I've made many different films, which I've loved. But these two will live on forever in the mind and the heart of everybody.''

Garry Maddox travelled to Paris as a guest of UniFrance Films.


GENRE Drama.

CRITICAL BUZZ Acclaimed French-language film that's up for five Oscars, including best picture.

STARS Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert.

DIRECTOR Michael Haneke.


RELEASE Now screening.

This story Love and tenderness first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.