CANNES, France — Jean-Louis Trintignant, star of the film "Love" that won Cannes gold on Sunday, is a French screen legend who returned to cinema after a 15-year break for a searing performance as a man caring for his dying wife.
The 81-year-old made a powerful impression in Austrian Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning movie, the tale of retired music teachers Georges and Anne, whose adoring relationship is cruelly tested when she suffers a stroke.
Set in the hushed rooms of the couple's parquet-floored Parisian flat, the film charts Anne's physical and mental decline, and the increasingly unbearable strain it puts on Georges, who pledges to care for her at home until the end.
A classic French film and stage actor whose breakthrough role was opposite Brigitte Bardot in the 1956 "And God... Created Woman," he plays opposite the 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva in Haneke's latest film.
Trintignant, who was crowned best actor in Cannes more than 40 years ago for the 1969 Costa Gavras movie "Z", spoke warmly -- and humorously -- during this year's festival of working with the Austrian director.
"I didn't want to act on screen any more. But Haneke is one of the greatest film-makers in the world. I am very proud to be in this film -- but I won't be making any more! I suffered a lot!"
"I have never worked with such a demanding director -- and quite frankly I wouldn't wish it on anyone!" he quipped, joking that in one scene even a pigeon was driven to exhaustion by the exacting Austrian.
Haneke's sober camera chronicles the intimacy of Anne's decline, the effort required of Georges to help her stand, wash or eat, but Trintignant said the director asked them to approach the harrowing story without sentimentality.
"Michael Haneke never wanted it to be sentimental or tear-jerking," he said. "It was very painful, but very beautiful."
"I have made more than 100 films, but it may be the first time I was happy to see myself. I say that without vanity."
Trintignant's long career was marked by tragedy, when his daughter, the actress Marie Trintignant, was killed in 2003 by her rocker partner Bertrand Cantat, who was jailed for manslaughter.
The son of an industrialist, Trintignant chose acting over the law. After a traumatic military service in French-ruled Algeria, he made a noted screen debut in the 1960 "Dangerous Liaisons" by French director Roger Vadim.
His big break came with the 1966 "A Man and a Woman" by Claude Lelouch, which took the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 1966, launching him as one of France's most-loved actors.
Over the years Trintignant has starred opposite France's greatest actresses, from his one-time partner Bardot to Romy Schneider, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert or Fanny Ardant.
In the late 1980s he stepped back from the cinema, taking on only projects he felt strongly about, such as Jacques Audiard's 1994 "See How They Fall", about a salesman tracking the murderers of his policeman friend.
In recent years Trintignant had turned increasingly to the stage, where he feels actors hold a richer place.
"I think I am better on stage, he said in Cannes this week.
A lover of wine and poetry, he performed on stage with his daughter Marie in 1999 for a joint performance of "Poemes a Lou", a letter from Guillaume Apollinaire to his beloved.
"I had a beautiful, close bond with Marie," he said in a book of interviews published last month. "I don't know if anyone could have such a rich relationship with their daughter."
Trintignant, who had two other children with the director Nadine Marquand, had already suffered the loss of one daughter, Pauline, who died aged nine months in 1970. Their third child is a son named Vincent.
Despite the nourishment of poetry, his return to cinema, and a joyous, mischievous spirit that was on full display in Cannes this week, he confides in the book of interviews that Marie's death left him profoundly bereft.
"Sadly Marie's disappearance erases everything, both poetry and Haneke. Today I am merely pretending to be alive."
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