He's in that league, not a doubt about it,” she says of Haneke, singling out “The Piano Teacher” and “The White Ribbon” as films of his that she had seen and particularly admired before "Amour" came her way. “From the moment you meet him, just from the way he speaks, you know you're in the presence of a very great artist – and that's how it was with Resnais, with Kieslowski, even if they've all been very different to work with.” 

Riva is quick to point out, however, that this aura of greatness needn't imply aloofness; she describes Haneke as a warm and generous personality on set. “On the very first day of shooting, I was taken over by this great sense of happiness and security; there was a clear fraternity of spirit on set with Haneke, the actors, the crew. I knew I could surrender, and give myself to the film – which is important when you're telling such an intimate story.” 

Though the principal word Riva uses to describe Haneke's style, echoing many a critic, is “rigorous” – “It's the necessity of his craft, that precision” – she says the shoot was a highly collaborative process. “He's completely in control, but his approach isn't really instructive. "It's more like a conference,” she explains, before making an apt comparison for a film about classical musicians. “It's funny that music is so important in this film, because he's almost like a conductor on set: we, the actors and the technicians, are all playing our parts, and he's finding the union, the harmony, between us.” 

Equally crucial, and similarly productive, was her working relationship with Trintignant, with whom Riva performs a fragile, almost unbearably tender actors' duet. The intimation of a lifetime lived together, with all the subtle specificities of speech and gesture that implies, was another significant challenge of the project. Long-serving contemporaries in the French industry, the actors didn't actually know each other before “Amour,” though Riva says that wasn't a hindrance. 

"Quite the opposite, in fact,” she says, “because we had the freedom to build an entire history for the characters, the freedom to act and behave without preconception. By imagining their intimacy and sense of friendship from the beginning, that's how we got to know each other. It's a bit like doing a play for two months: you build the relationship as you work.” It was important to Haneke, meanwhile, that the couple's relationship on screen not be “too sweet,” which might have been harder with a close friend as a scene partner: sentimentality was something to be avoided at all costs. “It wasn't always easy on set, but that was only right.” 

Riva seemingly delights in the poetic tidiness of her film career currently being bookended by two great “amours”: Haneke's film, of course, and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” which she's pleased is so well-remembered in the various appreciations of her career that have been written recently. When I ask if there's a film between them that she wishes were brought up more frequently, she deliberates for some time before settling on Georges Franju's 1965 film “Thomas the Impostor,” a WWI drama adapted by Jean Cocteau from his own 1923 novel – getting to deliver Cocteau's words was a particular joy for the actress, herself a published poet. 

When I confess that I haven't seen it, she sadly sighs that there's very little way of viewing it today at all; when, as an artist, you find some of your own most treasured work falling into dust and disuse, it's all the more thrilling to have a stake in new classics like “Amour.” Shrugging off that melancholy interlude, Riva reverts to her effusively chatty self as we say our goodbyes, and she stresses once more that we got the wrong idea at the European Film Awards. She's a little tired – and with the reality of an Oscar nod looming, the next few weeks could be busier still – but Emmanuelle Riva is just fine.

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Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.