Oscar Actors: Riva, Emmanuelle–Legendary French Actress (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Amour) Dies at 89

The great French actress Emmanuelle Riva passed away on Friday at the age of 89.

Her career is defined by two astonishing performances, the first given in 1959 in Hiroshima mon amour, the last in 2012 in Amour.

Riva had appeared in over a hundred movies and theater plays in a career that began in the early 1950s.

She was still going, with two roles in feature films–the comedies Lost in Paris and Marie and the Misfits–released in 2016.

In her seven decade career, she worked with such major filmmakers as Jean-Pierre Melville (Leon Morin, Priest), George Franju (Therese Desqueyroux), Marco Bellocchio (The Eyes, The Mouth), Philippe Garrel (Liberte, la nuit).

In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue, Riva gave a memorable supporting performance as the mother of the widowed and grieving daughter, played by Juliette Binoche.

Her performances were always perceptive, with a fiery intelligence burning and with a distinctly French brand of beauty and class that often gave way to something darker, more disturbing.

The Oscar-nominated and Cesar-winning Riva had a long and prolific run – including dozens of plays, up to her critically praised lead in a revival of Marguerite Duras’ Savannah Bay, staged in Paris in 2014.

But it was her work at the very start and end of it that will remain most ingrained in viewers memories.

In 1958, when Riva was 30 and a theater actress in Paris, she was spotted by director Alain Resnais on a poster for a production of Dominique Rolin’s The Scarecrow. Resnais, who had made several shorts, including the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, decided to cast Riva as the lead in what would be his first feature film: Hiroshima mon Amour, from a script by Duras.

It’s a difficult role in a brilliantly constructed film where memories of WWII haunt two doomed lovers: a French actress (Riva) and married architect (Eiji Okada) having an affair while the former is shooting an anti-war film in Japan. Resnais cuts between documentary footage and scenes of the past and present, with Riva’s character (who has no name) narrating the action through Duras’ poetic, purposely repetitive dialogue – including the famous “You saw nothing in Hiroshima,” a line suggesting the impossibility of grasping the immense destruction of a recent war.

Riva is fearless in the film in a performance that oscillates between moments of forlorn desire and snippets of happiness that are quickly extinguished by the realities surrounding her. There are flashbacks from a past affair with a German soldier that leaves her character brutalized at the end of the story. Hiroshima mon amour, which premiered in Cannes in 1959 and received an Oscar nomination in 1961, propelled Riva into the spotlight.

A half-century later, Riva returned to both Cannes and the Oscars with Michael Haneke’s Amour, a different sort of love story than the one in Hiroshima, though one that is equally doomed from the start.

Playing opposite another legendary French actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Riva stars as Anne, a retired octogenarian music teacher living peacefully with her long-time husband, Georges, until she succumbs to two strokes that leave her partially paralyzed and gradually spiraling toward death.

Rarely has an actor of her age (she was 84 when the film was shot) played such a devastating part with such courage and humanity.

Anne doesn’t want Georges, her daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert) or anybody else to weep over her fate, even if she refuses herself to passively accept what has happened.

Anne’s demise, which begins in a flash during a magnificently subtle table scene, is shown to be at once real and inevitable. But that doesn’t mean that she and Georges can’t live it on their own terms–that an act of love, however upsetting, won’t spare them the worst.

Many moviegoers were unaware of Riva’s work prior to Amour,  which was also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and so to them her performance was a revelation.

Amour was a fitting final act for a career filled with tough and uncompromising roles, each one different from the last.

As an actress, she refused the kind of commercial movies that may have brought her greater fame both at home and abroad.

In an interviews she gave at the time of Amour’s Oscar run, she told the reporter: “I’ve never wanted to be a star, never.”


Hollywood Reporter