You've said you would not have made this film if Jean-Louis Trintignant was not involved. He's obviously an icon of cinema, but why specifically him?
Since I was growing up, I've always had two favorite actors: Marlon Brando and Jean-Louis Trintignant. They don't externalize everything. There's something they keep inside that remains mysterious, and they have a richness to their performances that you only find in real life. That was fundamental in wanting to work with him. But also, He exudes this warmth and humanity. There are any number of great actors in his age, but I don't know anyone else with that aura about him that was so necessary for the role.
It's been said that you're quite demanding, even stubborn with your actors. When you're dealing with performers who are older, is there a different give and take compared to your usual dealings with your cast?
I understand what you mean. It is true that when you're with an older and celebrated actor, you're more respectful. It's not a question of how well-known they are, but rather their age. When I'm talking to Jean-Louis Trintignant in private conversation, I would never use the form of address you use among friends. In French, there's the [respectful] vous and the [informal] tu. I would never use the tu with him. But work is work, and regardless of whether you're directing a child or an 80-year-old, the approach is always the same. If you haven't gotten what is necessary for the part, then you're going to insist on as much for an older actor than you do for a younger one. I treat them with the same respect or lack of respect as anyone else.
"But work is work, and regardless of whether you're directing a child or an 80-year-old, the approach is always the same."
The apartment is an incredible setpiece. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, two people trapped in a room for two hours would not be the most cinematic conceit. Did you set any guidelines to ensure that it was an aesthetically arresting locale?
When writing a script, especially involving a single set or two people, it is very helpful to have this model in mind. For that reason, I went back to the apartment of my parents in Vienna, not because the story of my parents had anything to do with the story I was telling, but rather because of the layout. It was so familiar, I thought it might give me ideas and help me in imagining the construction of the film, the same way as when you're writing a crossword puzzle. Having that structure of the squares can be helpful. In fact, that was the case. We transposed the apartment from Vienna and its Austrian furniture to a French studio with French furniture, but used the same layout.
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When [Trintignant's character] is in bed and he hears the water being turned off, that occurred to me because in my parents' apartment, the kitchen and the bedroom were quite far apart. If it had been different, I'm not sure I would've had that idea. Another example is that when my mother died—again, it has nothing to do with the story since she was very young when she died, before she was 50—but when she died, my stepfather locked that room and moved into the smaller room next to the kitchen.
You evoke religion quite sparingly in this film, but personally, do you think love can transcend death?
I don't want to take away from viewers the possibility of forming their own opinion by imposing my own. Automatically, it would be applied to that film, and I as an individual think it's uninteresting.
So it's probably fruitless to bring up euthanasia as a follow-up.
Many of your films, this one included, feature upwardly mobile characters named Georges and Anne. Is there a specific preoccupation there?
When I was writing my first television film, I had to come up with name. I was looking for short names, one or two syllables, that were relatively common. But in real life, and also in realistic art, names shouldn't have a symbolic fiction. So once I found those, there was no need to change them. Also, given the fact that my films are usually set in the same social milieu, they can be applied, and given my lack of imagination, it makes things easier now that I've found those names.
It has been said that two of the hardest subjects to direct are children and animals. You've handled children well, but how hard was it to control the poetry of an onscreen pigeon?
That scene was particularly difficult for Jean-Louis Trintignant to shoot. As you can see in the film, he's unsteady on his feet and he had to react constantly to the bird, whose movements were unpredictable. We had a bird wrangler on set, and we set out seeds on the ground in hope the bird would move in a certain direction, but it's very difficult to direct a bird. Those scenes were grueling for [Trintignant], all the more so because he had broken his hand previously. I will mention that he didn't break his hand while shooting the film, at least. He had asked for a physiotherapist so he'd be stronger while working, and in the course of that, he broke his hand. It was hard for him to then grasp things, something he mentioned in Cannes at the press conference.
Beyond your film career, what do you hope to have done before you shove off this mortal coil?
That's a hard question... That I haven't made too many people unhappy. [laughs]