Emmanuelle Riva, one of the great French actresses with a screen career that spanned over five decades, from Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour” to Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” has died. She was 89.
Though Riva started studying theater only in her mid-20s and worked onstage at first, her face and distinctive voice became well known early in her screen career, right after the release of Resnais’ “Hiroshima mon amour,” in which she played her first lead role. The film premiered in Cannes in 1959, and the actress returned to the fest for her last feature, simply titled “Amour,” in 2012. Haneke’s “Amour” went on to win the Palme d’Or, with a special mention for stars Riva and Louis Trintignant. Riva also won best actress for the film at the European Film Awards and the BAFTAs.
Riva became the oldest nominee in the category ever when she was nominated for the Oscar best actress award in 2013.
In between these Cannes bookends, Riva appeared in over 70 features, mainly shot in France or Italy and quite a few of them, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, made for TV. Besides the two Cannes titles, she is best remembered for her roles in three Venice fest premieres: Jean-Pierre Melville’s then-scandalous “Leon Morin, Priest” (1961), in which she played a young atheist widow who enters into a complicated relationship with the eponymous cleric; director Georges Franju’s 1962 Francois Mauriac adaptation “Therese Desqueyroux,” in which she played the despondent titular protag; and Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1993 title “Three Colors: Blue,” in which she essayed Juliette Binoche’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. Riva won Venice’s best actress Coppa Volpi for “Desqueyroux.”
Riva worked with a number of important directors, including Gillo Pontecorvo, Marco Bellocchio and Philippe Garrel, and the actress’s filmography reveals a breadth of work and a capacity to suggest conflicting feelings without necessarily using dialogue or relying on the strict meaning of spoken words. But what’s especially noteworthy about her career is the precision with which she chose her roles, almost all of them seemingly offering a fresh new challenge.
Not everyone was happy that Riva seemed interested only in complex femme characters. When promoting “Amour,” she admitted in French weekly Le Point that she had refused so many roles that perhaps people stopped had calling her for fear of being rejected again. “Maybe I should have done more mainstream work,” she said at the time, though the many roles she did play showcase an exceptional level of commitment that she probably would not have brought to more commercial and less challenging fare.
An exception that confirms the rule is Riva’s supporting role in Franco-American director Tonie Marshall’s 1999 hit “Venus Beauty Institute” (she also appeared in a couple of episodes of its spinoff tube series, “Venus and Apollo”). But this R-rated comedy went on to win the Cesar, the French Oscar equivalent, for best film, suggesting it was highly esteemed by industry peers as well as the audience.
Emmanuelle was born Paulette Riva in France’s eastern Vosges region. She came from a working-class family that had foreseen a career as a seamstress for Riva, though the plays she devoured as a reader made her decide to join a regional theater troupe, and her work with them convinced her to move to Paris and become an actress.
She was already 26 when she was accepted, on a scholarship, by the ENSATT theater school. Her first stage role in the capital was in George Bernard Shaw’s comedy “Arms and the Man,” and it was onstage, several years later, that Resnais spotted the actress he would cast in “Hiroshima.”
Riva remained loyal to the theater throughout her career, though the number of plays in which she appeared diminished in the 1990s. She last treaded the boards in 2001, in Euripides’ Greek tragedy “Medea,” and appeared in a TV adaptation of the play in the same year alongside future “Amour” co-star Isabelle Huppert.
Besides her work as a thesp in film, TV and on stage, she was also a published poet, having written three collections of poetry published between 1969 and 1982. A series of photographs she took in Hiroshima during the shoot of her first feature was published in book form in 2008.
Though “Amour” — a film that served as a late-career reminder of the actress’s skill and talent — dealt with difficult issues such as old age, invalidity and death, Riva repeatedly said in interviews that the set was a happy one and that she would gladly take on other roles in the future. But should the offers not roll in, “That’s OK,” she told British paper the Guardian. She continued: “I love life to death. If I don’t act in another film, who cares? I’m 85, it doesn’t matter. I’m still alive and that feels great.”
She didn’t have long to wait, as she appeared in the comedy “A Greek Type of Problem,” directed by Brigitte Rouan and released in 2013.