The first thing Emmanuelle Riva wants me to know – before any mention of movies, careers or awards, before the word “Amour” even enters our conversation – is that she’s feeling fine.
Admittedly, it’s not an entirely unprompted statement. She’s merely responding to my opening greeting, in which I mention how sorry I was to hear of her recent ill health – words which immediately draw a good-natured but puzzled laugh. “I’m sorry, illness?” she asks over the phone, via a translator, from her home in Paris. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Nervous that I’ve kicked off an eagerly-awaited interview with an immediate faux pas, I sheepishly explain that her absence at the previous weekend’s European Film Awards in Malta – where she was a popular winner of the Best Actress prize – had been explained by the presenter as the result of flu season. Happily, Riva cheerfully confirms, there must have been a misunderstanding. “I’m perfectly fine,” she says. “I was just tired. I’ve been doing interviews since Cannes!”
Speaking with bright, alert enthusiasm, making our Canadian translator work hard as she elaborates discursively on ideas with nary a pause, the 85-year-old actress certainly doesn’t sound ill – or even tired, for that matter, whatever her claims to the contrary. It’s a pleasure to encounter her in such starkly contrasting form to the ravaged, defeated spirit she so hauntingly inhabits in the final stages of Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”
As Anne, a refined music teacher who succumbs with alarming rapidity to the physical and mental recesses of dementia after a crippling stroke, Riva gives one of the year’s most remarkable performances: the actorly technique involved in portraying Anne’s decline is impressive, but what lingers longest in the memory is the piercing glare of her eyes, persistently protesting the indignities her body is foisting upon her, even when she deteriorates beyond speech. Already laurelled with Best Actress honors from the Los Angeles and Boston critics’ groups, in addition to the European Film Award, Riva is now on course to become the oldest lead acting nominee in Oscar history.
It’s a belated career peak for the actress who made an auspicious film debut 53 years ago as a nameless, passion-worn actress in Alain Resnais’s New Wave standard-bearer “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” – and one she certainly wasn’t expecting. “Reading that script was bliss,” she recalls. “It’s rare to be offered a script like that at any age, but how often are such roles written for actors over the age of 80, when you assume your time is behind you? It’s miraculous.”
Though she has never opted for retirement – unlike her co-star, Jean-Louis Trintignant, for whom “Amour” is his first film in nearly a decade – it has been a great many years since Riva has been handed a lead role, let alone one of such complexity. Accepting Haneke’s offer, she says, was a split-second decision. “The potential for this film was evident straight away on the page,” she says. “The subject it deals with is just extraordinary: so universal, so essential to everyone’s experience, and yet seldom portrayed with great depth in film. I had to say yes. It wasn’t a choice.”
Just because she was certain, however, doesn’t mean Riva wasn’t intimidated by the project. “I can’t remember ever having been so nervous about a role in my life,” says the actress, who describes the fears faced by the film’s characters, inevitably, as hitting rather close to home. “When you’re taking on a story like that, as an actor, you have to be worthy of that subject. It’s life, it’s bigger than you. You don’t want to fail the subject, and you don’t want to disappoint your director.”
Particularly not, one imagines, when that director is Michael Haneke – the sober-minded Austrian auteur whose career may be green compared to Riva’s, but whose reputation for austere formalism precedes him. Still, if anyone’s less likely to be overwhelmed by Haneke’s standing, it’s the actress who began her film career with Alain Resnais, and has since worked with such giants of the medium as Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Franju and Krzyztof Kieslowski.
He’s in that league, not a doubt about it,” she says of Haneke, singling out “The Piano Teacher” and “The White Ribbon” as films of his that she had seen and particularly admired before “Amour” came her way. “From the moment you meet him, just from the way he speaks, you know you’re in the presence of a very great artist – and that’s how it was with Resnais, with Kieslowski, even if they’ve all been very different to work with.”
Riva is quick to point out, however, that this aura of greatness needn’t imply aloofness; she describes Haneke as a warm and generous personality on set. “On the very first day of shooting, I was taken over by this great sense of happiness and security; there was a clear fraternity of spirit on set with Haneke, the actors, the crew. I knew I could surrender, and give myself to the film – which is important when you’re telling such an intimate story.”
Though the principal word Riva uses to describe Haneke’s style, echoing many a critic, is “rigorous” – “It’s the necessity of his craft, that precision” – she says the shoot was a highly collaborative process. “He’s completely in control, but his approach isn’t really instructive. “It’s more like a conference,” she explains, before making an apt comparison for a film about classical musicians. “It’s funny that music is so important in this film, because he’s almost like a conductor on set: we, the actors and the technicians, are all playing our parts, and he’s finding the union, the harmony, between us.”
Equally crucial, and similarly productive, was her working relationship with Trintignant, with whom Riva performs a fragile, almost unbearably tender actors’ duet. The intimation of a lifetime lived together, with all the subtle specificities of speech and gesture that implies, was another significant challenge of the project. Long-serving contemporaries in the French industry, the actors didn’t actually know each other before “Amour,” though Riva says that wasn’t a hindrance.
“Quite the opposite, in fact,” she says, “because we had the freedom to build an entire history for the characters, the freedom to act and behave without preconception. By imagining their intimacy and sense of friendship from the beginning, that’s how we got to know each other. It’s a bit like doing a play for two months: you build the relationship as you work.” It was important to Haneke, meanwhile, that the couple’s relationship on screen not be “too sweet,” which might have been harder with a close friend as a scene partner: sentimentality was something to be avoided at all costs. “It wasn’t always easy on set, but that was only right.”
Riva seemingly delights in the poetic tidiness of her film career currently being bookended by two great “amours”: Haneke’s film, of course, and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” which she’s pleased is so well-remembered in the various appreciations of her career that have been written recently. When I ask if there’s a film between them that she wishes were brought up more frequently, she deliberates for some time before settling on Georges Franju’s 1965 film “Thomas the Impostor,” a WWI drama adapted by Jean Cocteau from his own 1923 novel – getting to deliver Cocteau’s words was a particular joy for the actress, herself a published poet.
When I confess that I haven’t seen it, she sadly sighs that there’s very little way of viewing it today at all; when, as an artist, you find some of your own most treasured work falling into dust and disuse, it’s all the more thrilling to have a stake in new classics like “Amour.” Shrugging off that melancholy interlude, Riva reverts to her effusively chatty self as we say our goodbyes, and she stresses once more that we got the wrong idea at the European Film Awards. She’s a little tired – and with the reality of an Oscar nod looming, the next few weeks could be busier still – but Emmanuelle Riva is just fine.