A duo of octogenarian actors bowled Cannes over on Sunday as a devoted husband and his dying wife in a wrenching cinematic study of love at the bitter end by Palme d'Or winner Michael Haneke.
The Austrian director, who scooped the festival's top award in 2009 for The White Ribbon, a study of malice in a German village on the eve of World War I, turns with his new work Love to the most intimate of bonds.
Haneke cast French icon Jean-Louis Trintignant, 81, and Emmanuelle Riva, 85, in the story of Georges and Anne, a couple of retired music teachers, whose rich and 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.
"Once you reach a certain age, you necessarily have to face the suffering of the people you love," Haneke told a press conference after the screening. "It's part of nature. It raises the issue of how to manage the suffering of the people you love."
Utterly believable in the role of Anne, Riva told of how she threw herself heart and soul into the part, sleeping in her dressing room at the studio where it was shot to remain immersed in her character.
"I had a very, very strong desire to play this part," said the soft-spoken actress. "I had a kind of conviction that I could put myself in Anne's shoes.
"I approached it with a very powerful passion, and nothing seemed too difficult," she said. "I would run onto the set in the morning. And it was for me a great, great source of happiness."
Riva was last in Cannes in 1959 -- as the 30-something star of the French classic Hiroshima Mon Amour.
"After the age of 80, and especially for women, there are hardly any roles left in movie scripts," she told AFP after the press conference. "But from time to time, something like this comes along -- and then it's a great gift. You don't hesitate for a second."
Her co-star Trintignant, a classic French film and stage actor whose breakthrough role was opposite Brigitte Bardot in the 1956 "And God... Created Woman," also spoke warmly -- and humorously -- of shooting the film, his first in nearly 15 years.
"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.
"I am very proud to be in this film -- but I won't be making any more! I suffered a lot!" the actor, who was crowned best actor in Cannes for the 1969 Costa Gavras movie "Z".
"It was very painful, but very beautiful," he said.
In silence, save for the occasional bursts of piano music that recall their former, fuller life, Haneke's sober camera chronicles the intimacy of Anne's decline, the effort required of Georges to help his beloved stand, wash or eat.
Both actors said Haneke asked them to approach the harrowing story without sentimentality.
"Michael Haneke never wanted it to be sentimental or tear-jerking," Trintignant said. "But she was shaken up -- it would take her half an hour to recover from a scene," he said, nuancing Riva's upbeat account of the shoot.
Isabelle Huppert plays the couple's daughter, who drops in occasionally from London to check on them, but remains a remote presence as they spiral together deeper into Anne's sickness.
Wheelchair-bound, half-paralysed, the intelligent, vivacious Anne early on tells her husband she does not wish to live such an impaired life. But carry on they do, as far as George can take her.
Yet the director -- best known internationally as the director of psychological thriller Funny Games U.S. with Tim Roth -- makes clear this is not a film about the social challenges of caring for an ageing population.
"I don't write films in order to make a point," he said. "I had no desire to make a TV-style film about society and its problems."