A seamstress, poet and photographer, Emmanuelle Riva lives alone in Paris. She has enjoyed a long and happy career as a film actress, most notably starring at age 30 in Alain Resnais’s 1959 drama “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” and working in theater until 2001. “I liked the roles I had both on the stage and in cinema,” she wrote me in an email. “My preference is for both. Going from one role to the other is a healthy exercise; no time for them to leave any mark on us. It is others who leave a mark on us. And I don’t want to be a prisoner of any part, or to specialize in any genre. I don’t want to cultivate my image (how boring!). I would rather always feel the freshness of something newly born.”
When Michael Haneke brought her in to read with veteran French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (“Z,” “The Conformist”) for “Amour,” the exacting Austrian director liked their chemistry as an aging couple who are facing the dying of the light with grace and fortitude. “She was the best for the part,” he told me. “Of course, as a young man I had seen her in ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’ and been smitten with her but after that I lost her from view. We did auditions and I had the sense even before I met her, I had seen her picture and I could imagine her and Trintignant as a couple together. I thought they would make a good couple, but I hadn’t seen her perform. She auditioned for the part and immediately I knew that she was the one for it, because she was so good, but also because they fit together so well, they play to each other so well.”
Riva writes that she has been lucky throughout her career: “I have always encountered captivating roles and characters. I have often been happy, and still am now, with this exceptional film which happened at the exact moment in my life when I could do it. And how can one not be happy, being nominated for an Oscar?”
Riva plays Anne, a retired piano teacher living in her well-appointed Paris apartment with her husband Georges (Trintignant) until she suffers a series of debilitating strokes that put her into a wheelchair. “I was struck by the importance of the subject,” she writes, “by Michael Haneke’s talent of course, and how precise and restrained the writing was, as well as the strength of the thoughts behind it. And then, I had the intimate conviction that I would become Anne. I completely intuited it. Right away, I was passionately into this part of life that was offered to me. But maybe, I would like to believe, that if Michael Haneke chose me, it is because I was exactly what he wanted, because he is very precise, and his choices are never a coincidence. And then, we trusted each other.”
How did Haneke and Trintignant help her with her performance? “If the feeling we are in is authentic, we are all ‘helping’ each other out,” she responds. “But without being aware of it. We are not really there to help each other but to BE. For my part, Haneke’s main direction to me was ‘no sentimentality.’ For me, this was the absolute key, and then the work came to life and became enthralling and very interesting.”
She had never acted with Trintignant before. “You know, it is not awkward, quite the opposite,” she recalled. “For me, it actually gave me more freedom. We immediately found a complete intimacy. It is a rather intoxicating state (but one should not take advantage of it!).” The most challenging aspect of her performance: “What was difficult for me, for example, was how to maneuver the electric wheelchair! They are extremely sensitive and easily offended machines!”
In May, “Amour” started its long parade of wins with the Palme d’Or, which precluded its two stars from collecting acting prizes. Haneke insisted on bringing them up on stage. “The Palme d’Or was a very moving and very strong moment for all of us,” she wrote. “Each good film corresponds to a stage in our life, and thus seems gratifying. ‘Amour’ happened as I’m approaching the last stage of my life. I was not expecting it at all. The film’s success makes all of us happy. The awards are pouring into our hands. Thus it is very gratifying. One feels like we are truly sharing our lives. We all have several lives; and this very moment in my life, is, for me, the most gratifying.”
Riva has not been as front and center on the campaign trail as many of her younger competitors. She chooses her moments; she did not attend the European Film awards, which she and Trintignant both won, nor the BAFTA ceremony at the Royal Opera House in London last weekend to accept her best actress award. At Sony Pictures Classics’ behest, she reports, Riva did schlep to America in January to accept awards from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics, and will attend France’s César award ceremony followed by the Oscars. At 85 she is the oldest best actress nominee: February 24 is her 86th birthday.
“Amour” marks the first time since 1998’s “Central Station” that a foreign best picture nominee also landed a best actress nomination. With multiple wins including the SAG awards, “Silver Linings Playbook” best female actor winner Jennifer Lawrence looked like she was dominating the category. And yes, the SAG best actress-winner has become the Academy’s best actress winner in six of the last ten years… but not last year, when SAG winner Viola Davis lost to Meryl Streep. Riva was not up for that SAG award, and could trump Lawrence–who is a strong young personality actress–with her consummate craft.
“Amour” and “Silver Linings” are both strong late-inning contenders. The question is how many Oscar voters watched “Amour,” which is a hard look at aging and dying. One Academy senior loved the movie, he told me: “It’s my life.”