Death shall have no dominion over Emmanuelle Riva, the French actor — and sometime poet — who we see winding down quite brilliantly over the course of Michael Haneke’s harrowing Amour. “I can’t go on,” murmurs her character, Anne, as she finds herself unpicked by a series of strokes and retires to the confines of her book-lined Paris apartment.
The drama ushers her towards the deathbed and then beyond — all the way to the gaudy paradise of this month’s Bafta and Oscar ceremonies. If such a thing as life after death exists, it can be found at the Royal Opera House in London on Sunday and the Dolby theatre in Hollywood two weeks later.
The success of Amour (in general) and Riva (in particular) has caught Oscar pundits flat-footed: a topsy-turvy development for an industry that traditionally values youth over experience and English above other languages. Defying predictions, Haneke’s film has been nominated for the best picture and director prizes, while its 85-year-old star is the oldest acting nominee in Academy Awards history. For added novelty, Riva is joined on the best actress list by the youngest: nine-year-old Quvenzhan Wallis from the magical-realist Beasts of the Southern Wild.
“The acclaim for Riva’s performance started at the Cannes film festival last May,” says Wendy Mitchell, editor of Screen International. “But the Oscars is a much bigger hurdle and it’s a surprise to see her nominated. But now she’s made it, I think she’s got a good shot at winning it outright. She’s not just there for sentimental reasons.”
Riva was born in north-eastern France, the daughter of an Italian-born sign-painter, and worked as a seamstress before turning to acting. Even today she is arguably best remembered for her breakthrough role as the unnamed heroine in the 1959 classic Hiroshima Mon Amour.
Alain Resnais’ fractured romance about memory and forgetting inspired the nouvelle-vague filmmakers who followed and was hailed by director Eric Rohmer as “the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema”. Another fan was Haneke. “As a young man I’d been captivated by Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour,” the director told the New York Times last year. “But after that I lost her from view.”
This is not to suggest Riva has been hiding for the past 50 years. She became a low-key talisman of French cinema throughout the 1960s, working with the likes of Georges Franju and Jean-Pierre Melville. But since Riva hit middle age, when rewarding screen roles started drying up, she has primarily been working on stage. In the past few decades, she has cropped up in Three Colours Blue and the Julie Delpy drama Skylab. But she has never bloomed into a national treasure like, say, her contemporary Jeanne Moreau.
“Riva is mostly unknown to a wide French public,” says the French cultural commentator Agns Poirier. “In the sense that she belongs to hardcore cinephilia, the unyielding clique, the guardians of the nouvelle-vague.”
For all that, Hiroshima Mon Amour stands as the ghost in the wings of Haneke’s movie. In casting Riva as the frail, fading Anne, the director is implicitly trading on the actor’s former glories. This, he seems to be saying, is the fate that awaits us all.
The capricious young lover of 1959 becomes an ailing octogenarian, raging against the dying of the light, her body breaking down. Beauty fades and the music stops and all that survives us (maybe) is love.
“It is always poignant to see people like Riva back on centre stage, because in many ways they represent the history of cinema. What she brings to Amour is so much more than her performance. She adds the power of things that have passed. The emotion she conveys is very Proustian in that sense,” says Poirier.
Away from the deathbed, Riva lives quietly in a Paris apartment, which, reports suggest, is not so different from Anne’s bourgeois home in Amour. She has no children and her long-time partner died in 1999, but she fills her life with books, paintings and photography.
Riva largely shuns the limelight, although she has published three collections of poetry and a book of her photographs, taken on the set of Hiroshima Mon Amour. She admits theatre roles have become more difficult in recent years, and now struggles to memorise her lines. But acting has been good to her and she is reluctant to let it go. “I have always loved cats,” she told the Guardian last year. “And I think that being an actor is like being a cat. You have the opportunity to go out and live nine lives. And then you can come home and sleep by the fire.”
Since Amour played at Cannes, Riva has received prizes from the Los Angeles film critics and the National Society of Film Critics and was honoured at the European film awards last December. Might she crown them all with a best actress Oscar? “I’d be astounded if she won,” admits Poirier, although she points out that The Artist a French-made, black-and-white silent film did win the best picture statue last year. “Tout est possible,” she says.
At Screen International, Wendy Mitchell suspects Riva is probably second favourite to Jennifer Lawrence, the 22-year-old star of Silver Linings Playbook. “Lawrence has been hotting up over the last few weeks and she is seen as a rising talent in the US,” she says. “On the other hand, that might finally count against her. Jennifer Lawrence is going to have other years, other chances, whereas for Riva it’s probably now or never.”
By that logic, the actor’s age may even work in her favour. “You have to remember that the median age of Academy voters is 62. Only 14% of the members are under 50. Some of these people have been following her career since Hiroshima Mon Amour.”
In the fraught run-up to Oscar night, only a fool would read too much into omens and portents. Yet sometimes the runes are hard to ignore. The Academy Awards ceremony takes place on Sunday, 24 February. And this, by a happy quirk of fate, is also Emmanuelle Riva’s 86th birthday.
Born Paulette Riva in Chenimnil, France; 24 February 1927
Career to date: Riva was a seamstress in her teens before landing a role in a stage production of Shaw’s Arms and the Man. She became an emblem of the French New Wave, thanks to her role in Hiroshima Mon Amour, before returning to the Paris stage in the 1970s. She is a keen photographer and a published poet.
High point: Playing embattled, graceful Anne in Michael Haneke’s Amour a performance that arguably eclipses her vibrant early roles
Low point: Waving to the press on the red carpet. “What’s that about? We’re not performing monkeys.”
What she says: “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.”
What others say: “Actors know a good performance when they see it, and Emmanuel Riva’s is the best of the year” (Nicole Kidman)