European acting royalty came to the Palais on Sunday, with the screening and press conference for Michael Haneke's latest film Amour, an emotionally-demanding drama about love tested by sickness and despair.
The film begins abruptly, as firemen break down the door to a Paris apartment and find a long-dead old woman on a bed, surrounded by flowers. Unlike such recent Haneke films as Hidden or The White Ribbon, there is no puzzle here and no political message - just a straightforward chronology of decline and demise, and surprising tenderness.
While the mood in the theatre was solemn, at the press conference afterward it changed to celebratory, in honour of the lovers in Amour, played by living luminaries of French cinema: 81-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant and 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva.
Trintignant was the first to enter the press conference, waving his hands in the air like a boxing champ to cheers from the audience. Fourteen years ago, he announced he was retiring from film to concentrate on theatre - but until that point his highlights on screen included a Cannes acting prize in 1969 for Costa-Gavras's Z, as well as roles in French classics including And God Created Woman, A Man and a Woman, My Night at Maud's, The Conformist and the final films from François Truffaut ( Confidentially Yours) and Krzysztof Kieslowski ( Three Colours - Red).
When asked what inspired his return to cinema after 14 years, Trintignant shrugged. "I didn't want to act in films any more, but this is exceptional. I won't do it any more. I think I'm probably better in theatre. Michael is a very demanding director. This was painful, but also very beautiful," he said. "In over 100 films, I never really liked seeing myself on film. I think this is the first one where I've liked seeing myself."
For her part, Riva has done most of her work for television and the stage. But she also occupies a central place in cinema: She played the unnamed actress in Alain Resnais's 1959 film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a key catalyst for the French New Wave.
She agreed that Haneke is demanding - but "not so difficult. He has high standards but I set high standards for myself."
In the course of the film, Riva's character loses her ability to walk, and then her face is partly paralyzed, forcing the actor to speak with an apparatus in her mouth. Riva said she felt no apprehension about the part, beyond fears she would crash into a wall with the electric wheelchair. "It was a tremendous joy. I don't mean to boast but I felt I could do this part. I could identify with her," she said. "Watching it, I saw another person. It was completely separate from me. I raced to start working in the morning and couldn't wait to return. In the evening, I played Andalusian music and danced."
When journalists persisted with questions about the ordeal of acting in the film, Isabelle Huppert - who plays the couple's daughter (and won best actress at Cannes for her role in Haneke's The Piano Teacher) decided to correct them.
"No. It's the spectators who suffer," she said. "Not the actors."
While less confident directors might take her statement the wrong way, Haneke was quick to agree.
"It's much more difficult to watch the film than do the work. That's a very romantic notion that because a movie is full of suffering, the actors suffered. On the contrary, in lots of comedies, the shooting is extremely sad."
Only Trintignant reiterated that Haneke is hard on his actors, even of the non-human variety. In one scene, his character, Georges, has to catch a pigeon that has flown into his house. Trintignant had broken his wrist, but Haneke made him take off the removable cast for the scene.
"Michael wanted to direct the pigeon - and he didn't think the pigeon was very good. I didn't think so either. But we kept making the pigeon do the scene again and again. In fact, there were two pigeons. One gave up."