Michael Haneke’s much-lauded Amour, which won Best Foreign Language Film last night at the Oscars, has at its center two powerhouses of modern European art cinema: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest woman ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar. The two central faces of Amour, here aged and frail, have graced screens realized by the visions of master filmmakers like Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Costa-Gavras, Krysztof Keislowski, Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Franju, and Bernardo Bertolucci among others.
It’s fitting that Haneke picked Trintignant and Riva to make a film about aging, for these are two performers that can be seen aging and changing on celluloid through decades of incredible work. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine European art cinema, in its many transformations, without these two faces.
Here are a few of their key performances in The Criterion Collection…
Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais 1959)
That other amour, Resnais’s first feature film explores the traumatic and continuous presence of past memory, in this case using the horrors of Hiroshima as a philosophical framework to explore deep interpersonal loss. Like Amour, Hiroshima mon amour is a film about a particularly un-romantic type of intimacy and love, one that acknowledges the marks and scars we leave on those we connect deeply with. This lyrical, poetic film features Riva in her first starring role (her most celebrated role until Haneke’s Amour), and it made her one of many several significant stars of the new French art cinema (I hesitate including Resnais’s work as part of the New Wave).
While Hiroshima mon amour is “about” a couple, it’s Riva’s haunting voice (speaking Margeurite Duras’ words) and riveting face (often disconnected from her voice) that contribute greatly to making Hiroshima mon amour a work of cinematic poetry. In July 1959, after the film’s initial release, Eric Rohmer declared, “I think that in a few years, in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we will know whether Hiroshima mon amour was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema.” More than fifty years later, Hiroshima mon amour has lived up greatly to its promise and reputation.
Leon Morin, Priest (Jean-Pierre Melville 1961)
As in Hiroshima mon amour, Leon Marin, Priest, finds Riva at the center of a feature-length philosophical conversation, this time as a sexually frustrated Communist militant discussing religion with a young, steadfast priest. Leon Morin stars fellow French art cinema staple Jean-Paul Belmondo in a quiet and contemplative role that’s virtually the opposite of the persona he affected in his collaborations with Godard. The film is (thankfully) not at all didactic despite positioning two seemingly oppositional worldviews at its center, and is instead a sober rumination on challenging ideas, many of which the film refuses easy answers to.
As Gary Indiana observes in his Criterion essay, “To a secular eye, Jean-Pierre Melville’s sixth feature film, Léon Morin, Priest, is about almost anything except religion: the deleterious effects of sexual repression, the moral bleariness of wartime and life under occupation, the harsh inflections of history in ordinary lives.” And with this film, Riva continued her reputation as the go-to actress for dialogue-heavy films with introspective, philosophical themes. It’s no wonder that the twilight of her career should find her in yet another film occupied almost exclusively by two actors.
Three Colors: Blue (Krysztof Kieslowski 1993)
The first entry in Kieslwoski’s brilliant Three Colors trilogy finds Riva in a brief but heartbreaking supporting role as the mother of the recently-widowed Julie (Juliette Binoche). Julie visits her mother as a coda to her former life with her husband, a life which she renounces without warning in a desperate attempt to escape her grief. Julie’s mother suffers from Alzheimer’s and confuses Julie as her late sister.
In a film about the death of a spouse released twenty years ago, Riva was already exploring the confusing and emotionally wrenching effects of age.
And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim 1956)
Of course, Roger Vadim’s boundary-pushing depiction of boundless and frustrated juvenile sexuality didn’t become notorious for Tritingant’s performance, but rather because it made Brigitte Bardot into an international celebrity. However, even in this early work of his career, Tritignant displays an incredible ability to exhibit bubbling emotion through quiet restraint, as he is burdened for much of the film by a need to hide his love of Bardot’s Juliette.
Z (Costa-Gavras 1969)
Z is an incredibly complex and layered film. It shifts between dark political satire and disturbing socio-political realism, is an unspecific and semi-fictionalized account of the real-life assassination of a democratic Greek politician six years before, and features seemingly dozens of characters that build its intense maze of violence, corruption, and gallows humor.
This cinematic Molotov cocktail features European stars like Yves Montand and Irene Papas, but it’s Trintignant’s role as Greek judge Christos Sartzetakis that is the ensemble’s closest equivalent to a star turn as the examining magistrate seeking the militant assassins. Here, Trintignant handles the procedural intrigue with a deft adaptability to Z’s many shifting tones. A year later, he would go onto star as the eponymous role in Bertolucci’s masterpiece fable about fascist Italy The Conformist, proving not only an ability to play many types of complex men of power, but also that his adaptability as a performer knows few national or cultural boundaries.
My Night at Maud’s (Eric Rohmer 1969)
The fourth film in Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series, My Night at Maud’s stars Trintingant as a traditional and religious young socialite whose devotion to an off-screen love interest is challenged when he encounters Francois Fabian’s Maude through a mutual friend. Like Melville’s Leon Morin, My Night at Maud’s is a conversational piece between a religious man and a free-spirited woman who investigate a variety of topics including love, religion, morality, and all things Blaise Pascal. The whole thing is positively French.
Here Trintignant, while vocal, once again plays a character bursting with ideas and conflicts inside that he hesitates to express, and his subtle performance conveys a restrained character trapped within an overwhelmingly active mind. Kent Jones describes Trintignant’s performance in My Night at Maud’s as an exhibition of the actor’s unique essence in his Criterion essay: “Rohmer almost always works with good actors, and Trintignant is no exception. But the core of his presence here is something that is more or less unactable…In other words, who Trintignant is, as opposed to his considerable ability as an actor, sits at the heart of this character and this film.”
Three Colors: Red (Krysztof Kieslowski 1994)
The final film in Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy finds Trintignant playing as co-lead opposite Irene Jacob as the two find an unlikely connection over the death of a dog. Jacob’s Valentine Dusot visits the home of Trintignant’s Joseph Kern to apologize for accidently running over his dog, and discovers that Kern has been eavesdropping on their neighbors’ phone calls. There Kern listens to tales of heartbreak and inevitable disappointment, much like the rejection he experienced and never recovered from. Watching Trintignant listen to phone calls and reflect on a lost lover is not at all unlike viewing him listen to classical music while contemplating his wife’s final days in Amour.
So it seems the two leads of Amour have been connected before in films about loss of a loved one and the specter of aging, albeit not in the same film. Riva and Trintignant bookended Kieslowski’s celebrated trilogy, a series of films that weaves significant connections between its three tales, almost twenty years before these two institutions of European art cinema collaborated in one of the most unflinchingly honest and affecting films of this past year.