PARIS The actress Emmanuelle Riva, a symbol of the French New Wave of the 1950s and ’60s, was not giving much thought to success or even finding a lead role in a film after her last one some 20 years ago.
But when the Austrian director Michael Haneke, whose work she had long admired, offered her a starring part in “Amour,” a poignant tale of love and death set in a book-filled Paris apartment, she said yes.
“I immediately sensed that there was something extraordinary about the script,” said Riva, 85. “I sensed it intimately, without the least vanity. I knew I could do it, I wanted to do it right away, and I lived through it with passion.”
Riva’s subtle performance as a retired music teacher who falls into physical and mental decline after a stroke, putting enormous strain on her husband, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, has been praised by critics all over the world. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis described her (and Trintignant, who is 82) as “subtly brilliant,” and the French newspaper Le Monde wrote that she was “remarkable in her strength and stubbornness.”
Riva has collected prizes from the European Film Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Boston Society of Film Critics – quite a run, considering she last won a film award for Georges Franju’s 1962 “Therese.”
Though much has been made of the “Amour” stars’ age, in an interview at the Paris apartment where she has lived for almost 50 years, Riva did not want to talk about age, renaissance or fame; she bans words like “career” from her vocabulary. She still marvels at the most ordinary examples of life, including the pigeons that stop at her window.
A country girl
Though Riva has long been admired for her inimitable diction, allure and unassuming intelligence in portraying often dark and unconventional characters in New Wave classics like “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” she said, “I’ve never wanted to be a star, never.”
Haneke’s unusually tender yet unsentimental look at old age attracted her, she explained, and his straightforward view of decrepitude and death did not scare her, even when she was made up to appear older.
“My instructions were ‘no sentimentalism,’” she said. “From that moment on, I understood everything.”
She threw herself into the performance with more instinct than preparation, and the role, she said, “exorcised” her fears of death.
Isabelle Huppert, who plays her daughter in “Amour,” told her that in Haneke’s movies, “the spectators are the ones who suffer, not the actors.” Riva said she agreed with that sentiment.
Riva was born Paulette Rivat in 1927 and grew up in Remiremont, a village in eastern France.
As a child, Riva cherished “climbing on the trees of words” and performed in plays at the local theater. But life as an actress seemed unattainable for a “country girl,” so she quit school and worked as a seamstress for several years “while waiting for something else.”
After seeing an advertisement in a newspaper, she applied to an acting school in Paris and landed her first role on the Paris stage in 1954, in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.”
“I wanted to live another life and many lives at once,” she said. “Acting makes you live plenty of lives.”
The celebrity she never sought came in 1959 when Alain Resnais chose her as the lead in “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” playing an actress who goes to Hiroshima after the United States dropped the atomic bomb, and is caught in an impossible affair with a Japanese architect.
Riva later played a tormented widow looking for God in the 1961 “Leon Morin, Priest,” by Jean-Pierre Melville, as well as an unhappy wife who tries to poison her husband in “Therese.” Those performances, considered audacious at the time, led to more tragic and intellectual roles rather than comedies.
What is a ‘star’?
Riva had difficulty finding roles that suited her, and mostly devoted herself to theater. She had small parts in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue,” from 1993, and Tonie Marshall’s 1999 “Venus Beauty Institute,” and then turned to poetry for a while, writing three books of verse.
She likes to quote her friend the singer Jacques Brel, with whom she performed in Andre Cayatte’s “Risques du Metier” (1967): “Do you know any word more stupid than ‘star’?”
Riva is childless, and her companion died in 1999. Today she lives with no cellphone or television, and says that whatever comes, she intends to remain an ordinary person, even after the attention from “Amour.”