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It’s rare for an actor to give their two best performances — in two masterworks of art-house cinema — more than a half-century apart, but that was the case with the great French comedienne Emmanuelle Riva, who passed away Friday at the age of 89.
Riva had over a hundred movie and theater credits to her name, in a career that began in the early 1950s and was still going strong up until recently, with two roles in feature films — the auteur comedies Lost in Paris and Marie and the Misfits — released last year. Over seven decades, the actress worked with such major filmmakers as Jean-Pierre Melville (Leon Morin, Priest), George Franju (Therese Desqueyroux), Gillo Pontecorvo (Kapo), Marco Bellocchio (The Eyes, The Mouth), Philippe Garrel (Liberte, la nuit) and Krzysztof Kieslowski, in whose Three Colors: Blue she gave a memorable supporting turn as the mother of Juliette Binoche’s widowed and grieving character.
Riva’s performances were always perceptive and piercing, with a fiery intelligence burning just under the surface, if not right on top of it, and with a distinctly French brand of beauty and class that often gave way to something darker, more disturbing and ambiguous. The Oscar-nominated and Cesar-winning actress 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 just over 30 and performing in plays in Paris, she was spotted by director Alain Resnais on a poster for a theater production of Dominique Rolin’s The Scarecrow. Resnais, who had made several shorts, including the influential 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 difficult movie 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 (it was her first screen credit) in a performance that oscillates between moments of forlorn desire and snippets of happiness that are quickly extinguished by the realities surrounding her — as well as by 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, would propel Riva into the spotlight, while Resnais — along with contemporaries Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard — would become part of a New Wave that would change the course of movie history.
A half-century later, Riva would return 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), or of any age, played such a devastating part with so much unflinching courage and humanity — but also with a noticeable lack of sentiment, in a series of increasingly grueling, almost documentary-like scenes where her character is quite literally stripped bare before our eyes.
Anne doesn’t want Georges, her daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert) or anybody else to weep over her fate, even if she refuses to passively accept what has happened. It’s pure Haneke — life sucks and we often make it suckier — and 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.
For moviegoers who were unaware of Riva’s work prior to Amour, her performance was a kind of revelation, while others saw it as a fitting final act for a career filled with tough and uncompromising roles, each one different from the last. But perhaps “career” isn’t the right word for an actor who hated the term and refused the kind of commercial movies that may have brought her greater fame both at home and abroad. In one of a flurry of interviews she gave at the time of Amour’s Oscar run, Riva told the reporter: “I’ve never wanted to be a star, never.”
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