WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.
French actress Emmanuelle Riva has given us astonishing performances in movies like “Hiroshima mon amour,” “Thérèse Desqueyroux” and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Blue,” but now she has received the greatest acclaim of her career at age 85 in Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” In the movie she plays Anne Laurent, a retired music teacher who suffers a debilitating stroke, and we watch as her body and mind slowly deteriorate. The performance Riva gives is magnificent and not the least bit melodramatic, and she more than deserves to be among the nominees for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
“Amour” actually marks the first movie Riva has headlined years as she tends to be picky about the projects she chooses. In talking with Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter, Riva said she only wanted to work on projects which were good, and she ended up doing more work in the theater than in film. However, she did not hesitate at the opportunity to be in Haneke’s movie as she responded strongly to the screenplay and found that the role came to her at the right time.
“I’m sure you know that roles for older women in cinema are not that numerous. And when you’re 84 years old? It’s not very often that you find a role that matches you. I felt that since I am really in the last stage of my life, this was a tremendous gift that was given to me,” Riva told Feinberg.
“Fortunately for me, my own age corresponded exactly to the age of the character that was going to be portrayed in the film. It was really a very miraculous kind of thing that this role should come to me when it did,” Riva continued. “I thought that the script was very, very strong. The writing was very powerful, and it was very authentic, and it was the authenticity that touched me very much.”
Considering how “Amour” does deal with the theme of mortality and is an emotionally draining movie to sit through (many said they cried during the movie and after it had ended), this must have made it seem like the kind of project actors would be quick to shy away from doing. No matter how good the screenplay is, this movies deals with questions many of us don’t want to know the answers to for a long, long time. While humans can suffer from a stroke at just about any age these days, most people still believe they only happen to the elderly. But in an interview with Sharon Waxman of The Wrap, Riva said she accepted this role without any hesitation.
“Afraid? No, not at all,” Riva told Waxman. “Why would I be afraid? This role presents the subject of the film that touches each of us, every human on the planet. As an actress, it’s so exciting to be engaged in a role like this. I would never have felt fear for this. If an actress is afraid, she should head for the door right away.”
“I was so happy in the work,” Riva continued. “Every day, every day. Two months of work. It was such happiness-a feeling of complete fullness. Of life, of death, of love. I never lost the excitement of the work. I was so infinitely happy during this shoot. So serious, but it wasn’t sad at all.”
It’s also easy to assume the mood on the set of “Amour” must have been very tense considering the grim subject matter. You might also think the cast and crew would approach each day with a stone faced serious as they dealt with characters who are at death’s door, and this especially seemed to be the case with Haneke directing. His films “Cache,” “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon” have dealt with the darkest parts of the human existence, and on the surface “Amour” looks to be not much different. Riva, however, told Xan Brooks of The Guardian of how things on the set were not severely strict, and that the mood at times was actually quite playful.
“The subject matter is obviously intense. But we had a lot of fun along the way,” Riva told Brooks. “So much laughter, so many funny things. I remember once, when I was playing dead, I had to stay quite still. But when the crew went to look at the monitor, they came back laughing. I said, what’s so funny? And they told me that my toes were wiggling. My toes! I didn’t even know they could see them. So, I had to do the whole scene again and concentrate very carefully. I think my feet have a will of their own.”
Indeed, it’s movies like this one which test not just our emotions, but also how we see and treat diseases of any kind. Riva has spoken very highly of Haneke as a director and said he knows exactly what he wants and is not a bully about making his vision become a reality. And while this movie may seem infinitely sad, Riva never saw it as a scary one to be in or watch. She made this abundantly clear while talking with Tracy McNicoll of The Daily Beast.
“Because it is about a lady who becomes very sick, people believe it is difficult [to play]. But no, no. We incarnate a role and voilà,” Riva told McNicoll. “I knew people stricken like this. I knew, I saw; there are many. And performing that seemed fascinating. Sure, it wasn’t easy. But there is a rigor, there is a conductor in Haneke, a conductor who knows the right note to strike in things. He told me, ‘no sentimentality.’ So, I understood right away. No sentimentality. So that becomes really very interesting to perform. Because there is a restraint, a distance that is a pleasure to experience.”
While “Amour” remains the least watched of all the Best Picture nominees of the year, many are still rooting for Emmanuelle Riva to win the Best Actress Oscar. Right now, the front runners look to be Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook” and Jessica Chastain for “Zero Dark Thirty,” but this is a year where anything could happen at the Oscars. It would certainly be a great cap to an extraordinary career for this French actress who has appeared in many classic movies throughout the years, but Riva right now is taking all the acclaim and potential job offers in stride.
“If by chance people would still offer me roles, I’d still like to do them. But if not, that’s OK. I love life,” Riva says. “I love life to death. If I don’t act in another film, who cares? I’m 85, it doesn’t matter. I’m still alive and that feels great.”
Scott Feinberg, “‘Amour’ Star Emmanuelle Riva, on Brink of Making Oscar History, Looks Back at Career,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 17, 2013.
Sharon Waxman, “Oscar’s Oldest Nominee, Emmanuelle Riva, on ‘Amour’: It’s a Gift in the Last Stage of My Life,” The Wrap, February 13, 2013.
Xan Brooks, “Emmanuelle Riva: ‘You don’t say no to a film like Amour,'” The Guardian, November 8, 2012.
Tracy McNicoll, “Oscar’s 85-Year-Old Darling: A Talk with Emmanuelle Riva of ‘Amour,’” The Daily Beast, February 15, 2013.