Ms. Riva and Eiji Okada in “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” the 1959 Alain Resnais movie that made Ms. Riva famous long before Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”
By MAÏA de la BAUME
NY Times Published: January 1, 2013
PARIS — The actress Emmanuelle Riva, a symbol of the French New Wave and now an octogenarian, wasn’t giving much thought to success or even finding a lead role in a film after her last one some 20 years ago. But when the Austrian director Michael Haneke, whose work she had long admired, offered her a starring part in “Amour,” a poignant tale of love and death set in a book-filled Paris apartment, she said yes instantly.
“I immediately sensed that there was something extraordinary about the script,” said Ms. Riva, 85. “I sensed it intimately, without the least vanity. I knew I could do it, I wanted to do it right away, and I lived through it with passion.”
Ms. Riva’s subtle performance as a retired music teacher who falls into physical and mental decline after a stroke, putting enormous strain on her husband, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, has been praised by critics all over the world. In The New York Times Manohla Dargis described her (and Mr. Trintignant, who is 82) as “subtly brilliant,” while The Daily Telegraph called her “astonishing” and Le Monde wrote that she was “remarkable in her strength and stubbornness.”
In May Ms. Riva stood next to Mr. Haneke after the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first of many honors, including a Golden Globe nomination for foreign-language film. Ms. Riva herself has collected three prizes, from the European Film Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Boston Society of Film Critics — quite a run, considering that she had last won a major film award for Georges Franju’s 1962 “Thérèse.”
Though much has been made of the “Amour” stars’ advanced years, in an interview at the Paris apartment where she has lived for almost 50 years, Ms. Riva did not want to talk about age, renaissance or fame; she bans words like “career” from her vocabulary. She still marvels at the most ordinary examples of life, including the pigeons that regularly stop at her window. Her home is an elaborate blend of past and present, with landscape paintings displayed among recent pictures of animals, including her cat, Titine, now dead.
Ms. Riva has shorter hair than her character in the movie, but she has the same delicate reserve and softness in her eyes. She sat straight, even immobile, and moved from a room to another with an athletic grace unusual for a woman of her age.
Though Ms. Riva has long been admired for her inimitable diction, allure and unassuming intelligence in portraying often dark and unconventional characters in New Wave classics like “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” she said, “I’ve never wanted to be a star, never.” She added: “I tried to do things that pleased me, and I needed to do various things. It is dreadful to see actors reproducing the same image constantly.”
Mr. Haneke’s unusually tender yet unsentimental look at old age attracted her, she explained, and his straightforward view of decrepitude and death did not scare her, even when she was made up to appear older for the role.
“My instructions were ‘no sentimentalism,’ ” she said. “From that moment on, I understood everything.”
She threw herself into the performance with more instinct than preparation, and the role, she said, “exorcised” her fears of death. Isabelle Huppert, who plays her daughter in “Amour,” told her that in Mr. Haneke’s movies, “the spectators are the ones who suffer, not the actors,” and Ms. Riva said she agreed with that sentiment.
“The atmosphere was very solemn, very precise and very rigorous on the set,” she added. “There wasn’t any sadness; we were all together.”
Like many other actresses, she went through an audition for the role of Anne, the retired teacher. “Haneke told me that I was the one who had touched him the most,” she said. “He even kindly told me later that I was the only actress in France who could do it.”
In an interview with The Times earlier this year, Mr. Haneke said, “As a young man, I’d been captivated by Emmanuelle Riva in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ but after that I lost her from view.” When it came time to cast “Amour,” he said that at the auditions, “from the very beginning Emmanuelle Riva was my favorite, not only because she’s a great actress but because she forms a very attractive and believable couple with Jean-Louis Trintignant.”
Ms. Riva was born Paulette Rivat in 1927 and grew up in Remiremont, a small village in eastern France. Her father worked as a painter for construction companies.
As a child, Ms. Riva cherished “climbing on the trees of words” and performed in plays at the local theater. But life as an actress seemed unattainable for a “country girl,” as she likes to call herself, from a family of modest means, so she quit school and worked as a seamstress for several years “while waiting for something else.”
After seeing an advertisement in a local paper, she applied to an acting school in Paris and landed her first role on the Paris stage in 1954, in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.”
“I wanted to live another life and many lives at once,” she said. “Acting makes you live plenty of lives.”
The celebrity she never sought came in 1959 when Alain Resnais chose her as the lead in “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” playing an actress who goes to Hiroshima after the United States has dropped the atomic bomb, and is caught in an impossible affair with a Japanese architect.
She has fond memories of the experience, whose aftereffects include the 2009 publication of a book of photographs she took of Hiroshima during the shooting, and a lasting friendship with the movie’s writer, Marguerite Duras.
Ms. Riva later played a tormented widow looking for God in the 1961 “Léon Morin, Priest,” by Jean-Pierre Melville, as well as an unhappy wife who tries to poison her husband in “Thérèse.” Those performances, considered audacious at the time, led to more tragic and intellectual roles rather than comedies.
“I refused as many offers as I accepted,” she said. “I refused commercial roles. But it was wrong, I have been too extreme, and I don’t say it was good.”
After working with renowned directors like Marco Bellochio and Philippe Garrel, Ms. Riva had difficulty finding film roles that suited her, and mostly devoted herself to theater work. She had small parts in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue,” from 1993, and Tonie Marshall’s 1999 “Venus Beauty Institute,” and then turned to poetry for a while, writing three books of verse.
She likes to quote her friend the singer Jacques Brel, with whom she performed in André Cayatte’s “Risques du Métier” (1967): “Do you know any word more stupid than ‘star’?”
Ms. Riva is childless, and her companion died in 1999. Today she lives with no cellphone or television, and says that whatever comes, she intends to remain an ordinary person, even after the attention she has received for “Amour.”
The film’s success pleases her, she said, particularly when she hears from fans or young people.
On a recent day her face lighted up as she read a letter from an old friend who had just seen “Amour.” “I still wonder how you managed to age so tragically in front of our eyes,” the friend wrote.
Ms. Riva laughed and said, as if responding to the letter: “Anne is another person, it isn’t me. It is a journey into someone else, someone I’m not.”