Emmanuelle Riva

Emmanuelle Riva
Emmanuelle Riva

Emmanuel Riva obituary in “The Guardian” in 2017.

For her brave, unsentimental performance as an elderly woman agonisingly declining physically and mentally in Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), Emmanuelle Riva, who has died aged 89, became the oldest best actress Oscar nominee ever, at 85. It was more than half a century since Riva’s soothing cadenced voice and delicate features had dominated Alain Resnais’ masterful Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).

In that film, the voice of Riva as Elle is first heard over horrific newsreel images of the victims of the atom bomb, and it is almost 10 minutes into the film before we see her in the arms of her Japanese lover (Eiji Okada), called simply Lui. She is a French actor in Hiroshima, he is an architect. The repeated phrases of their dialogue echo throughout the film written by Marguerite Duras. He says: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”

She replies: “I saw everything. I imagined nothing.” He retorts: “You imagined everything.” Riva’s performance is both symbol and reality. She both represents France and a woman trying to come to terms with the tragedy of the Japanese man’s city while recalling her love for a German soldier in Nevers during the war.Advertisement

Interviewed in 1959 after the film’s premiere, Riva said with some foresight, “The film has probably spoiled me because I think I’m now going to be disappointed in anything that follows.” Thus, whatever she did subsequently, until Amour came along, she would always be measured by her role in Hiroshima Mon Amour. Yet few actors could claim to have worked with such a range of radical directors: Resnais, Haneke, Georges Franju, Marco Bellocchio, Philippe Garrel, Gillo Pontecorvo, Jean-Pierre Mocky, Jean-Pierre Melville, Fernando Arrabal and Krzysztof Kieslowśki.

Born Paulette Riva in Cheniménil, Alsace-Lorraine, to René Riva, an Italian-born sign writer, and his wife, Jeanne (nee Nourdin), she began working, like her mother, as a seamstress for a dressmaker. However, she decided to realise her ambitions to become an actor after appearing with an amateur company, despite her father’s opposition.

She arrived in Paris in 1953 hoping to study at the Conservatoire National d’Art Dramatique. At 26, however, she was considered too old to apply for a grant. But she was able to attend the celebrated Centre d’Art Dramatique at 21 rue Blanche, under Jean Meyer. (More than 20 years later, Riva played Natalya Petrovna to Meyer’s Doctor Shpigelsky in a TV production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country.)

She got her first break in the theatre in Paris as Raina in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, which was followed by her Vivie in Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession, and further parts in Luigi Pirandello’s Naked and Gorky’s Children of the Sun. When Resnais cast her in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Riva claimed, at 32, that it was the first part she had been given as “a real woman and not a young girl”. It counts as her first screen role, though she had previously had a small uncredited part as a secretary in The Possessors (Les Grandes Familles,1958), starring Jean Gabin.

After Hiroshima Mon Amour, she was much in demand and made about two films a year during the 1960s. Often called “intellectual”, she contributed to this image by refusing star status and being very selective in her artistic choices. Although introverted as a performer, she often played a tragic woman of passion.

She shone in Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1960) as a woman in a concentration camp who kills herself by running into an electrified fence. In Léon Morin, Priest (Léon Morin, Prêtre, 1961), she is the atheist widow who falls in love with the Catholic priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in rural France during the occupation. Melville’s quietly polemical film explores their ideology through a series of discussions, beautifully modulated in a restrained manner by Riva and Belmondo.

In Franju’s Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962), an updated version of François Mauriac’s 1927 novel of the same name, Riva plays a woman who, stifled by provincial life and a dull marriage, decides to poison her boring but inoffensive husband (Philippe Noiret). Her subtle portrayal of the psychological and physical deterioration of Thérèse won her the Volpi cup for best actress at the Venice film festival.

Also for Franju, she appeared as an aristocratic widow who helps the wounded during the second world war in Thomas the Impostor (Thomas l’Imposteur, 1964), from the Jean Cocteau’s 1923 novel. She was also effective as the wife of a teacher (Jacques Brel), accused of the rape of three pupils in André Cayatte’s Risky Business (Les Risques du Metier, 1967). One of her most bizarre enterprises was Arrabal’s I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (J’Irai Comme un Cheval Fou, 1972) in which Riva, seen in surreal flashbacks, played a domineering mother murdered by her son.

Gradually, Riva began to accept supporting roles in films and on television, and returned occasionally to the theatre. Among her more interesting films were Mocky’s Is There a Frenchman in the House? (Y a-t-il un Français dans la Salle?,1982), Bellocchio’s The Eyes, the Mouth (Gli Occhi, la Bocca, 1982) and Garrel’s Liberty at Night (Liberté, La Nuit, 1983), in which she played an abandoned wife moving towards politics during the Algerian war.

In Kieslowśki’s Three Colours: Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu, 1993), there is a memorable homage sequence when the grief-stricken Juliette Binoche, whose mother Riva plays, scrapes her knuckles against a stone wall she passes, as Riva does in a similar scene in Hiroshima Mon Amour.

In 1997, she won great praise for her performance in Jorge Lavelli’s staging of José Sanchis Sinisterra’s Le Siège de Léningrad at the Théâtre National de la Colline in Paris, and in 2001, she was seen as The Chorus in a TV production of Euripides’ Médée with Isabelle Huppert in the title role.

In Amour, retaining a certain fragile beauty, she put the acting experience of a long lifetime into the character of the partially paralysed Anne, to Jean-Louis Trintignant’s devoted husband Georges, with Huppert as their daughter.

In contrast, this was followed by small film roles in light comedies such as a medium, distant and yet reassuring, in A Greek Type of Problem (Tu Honoreras Ta Mère et Ta Mère, 2013) and an eccentric aunt on the run in Lost in Paris (Paris Pieds Nus, 2016). In February 2014, Riva returned to the Paris stage, performing in Savannah Bay by Duras at the Théâtre de l’Atelier, a reunion with the avant-garde writer more than 50 years after Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Riva, who never married, once said: “I had dozens of marriage proposals, I refused them all. Why would I tie myself down with a husband and children?”

• Emmanuelle Riva (Paulette Germaine Riva), actor, born 24 February 1927; died 27 January 2017Topics

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