She once told me she never wanted to be a star, that the pleasure of acting itself was enough for her. Perhaps that is why she always returned to the stage, although she could have made much more money just doing films.
Yet Emmanuelle Riva learned she could not have her privacy and enjoy it, too. “If I took a break from movies, they soon forgot about me. They stopped calling. Looking back, I suppose I was too selective. It’s what I call ‘the savage’ in me, the urge to just go off by myself and do what I want.”
If there was one word to describe Riva, it was “independent.” She never married, had no children, and lived in the same Latin Quarter Paris apartment for over 50 years. She also chose not to have a television or a cellphone. Her apartment had a radio, a place for art, and shelves of books. Above the fireplace was a chalkboard on which she wrote quotes she heard on the radio, quotes about her favorite subjects – freedom, love, and time.
Her passion for privacy made the announcement of her death on January 27, 2017, a surprise to even some of those who knew her. According to her agent, Anne Alvares Correa, the cause was cancer. After a memorial service on February 4, 2017 at Saint-Germain de Charonne church (located on the Right Bank), she was buried in Charonne cemetery.
Riva never took the road frequently traveled. Born Paulette Germaine Riva on February 24, 1927, in Chenimenil, a village in the mountains of northeastern France, she grew up in nearby Remiremont. Her father, René Alfred Riva, was a sign painter; her mother Jeanne (Fernande Nourdin), was a seamstress. An only child, she had always wanted to act, performing in school plays and later in a local theater troupe. Because of the objection of her parents (Riva said her father was a strict disciplinarian to whom the word “actress” was merely a synonym for “prostitute”), she trained as a seamstress and worked at that craft after graduation from high school. One day, however, she spotted an advertisement for auditions at the Dramatic Arts Centre of Rue Blanche in Paris. She knew she had to go – if she remained a seamstress where she was she would have gone mad, she said. After long discussions her parents gave in and agreed to let her go. Her audition was conducted before none other than one of the leading actors and directors of the Comédie-Française, the great Jean Meyer. “All I remember was standing there, a nice little country girl in a little skirt.” She acted a scene from Alfred Musset’s play, There’s No Trifling With Love. Meyer and the other teachers on the jury were impressed and awarded her a scholarship, with Meyer himself acting as her mentor.
After completing her studies in 1954, she landed her first role on the Paris stage in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. She followed that with roles in several stage productions, including Shaw’s Mrs. Warren's Profession, Bernanos’ Le dialogue des Carmélites, and Racine’s Britannicus.
In 1957, she made her television debut in an episode of the history program Enigmes de l’histoire entitled "Le Chevalier d'Éon." She played the Queen of England opposite Marcelle Ranson-Herve as the cross-dressing knight in the service of the French crown. In 1958 came her first film appearance, an uncredited role in The Possessors, starring Jean Gabin.
The following year marked her breakthrough in film. While appearing on the Paris stage in L’Epouvantail (“The Scarecrow”), she was visited in her dressing room by Alain Resnais, a young documentary director looking for a leading lady for his first feature film, Hiroshima mon amour. He told Emmanuelle he was very impressed with her performance, especially her voice, which he felt had the right quality for the lengthy dialogue scenes in the film. He sent photos of her, along with a report, to the film’s screenwriter, Marguerite Duras, who agreed with his assessment.
Hiroshima mon amour is a beautifully constructed film about memory and forgetfulness, recounting a series of conversations that take place over a 36-hour long period. In the movie, Emmanuelle plays a unnamed woman, known only in the credits as “Her.” She is an actress who comes to Hiroshima to make an anti-war film. There she meets and falls into an affair with a Japanese architect played by Eiji Okada and listed in the credits as “Him.” The affair has ended and she is preparing to leave.
Their dialogue is conducted in voice-overs and discusses both the bombing of Hiroshima and her early life during the war in Nevers, a town in Occupied France, were she had an affair with a German soldier. Her living and dead lovers – as well as the horrors of Nevers and Hiroshima – become linked.
Riva’s performance is the linchpin around which the film revolves. Speaking her character’s thoughts through a voice-over, she translates each of her feelings to delicate expressions with such eloquence that her face became the mirror of her soul, enabling the audience to understand what was going on inside her mind. The intelligence and intensity of her performance made "Elle" one of the most indelible characters in film history.
Critic Jean Domarchi noted that "In a sense, Hiroshima is a documentary on Emmanuelle Riva.” It is a portrayal unlike anything ever seen before on the screen and one that was noticed by commentators from Jean-Luc Godard to Eric Rohmer, who hailed her performance as that of a new type of heroine, “at least not one that a certain classical cinema has habituated us to see from David Griffith to Nicholas Ray.”
Though the Academy ignored her performance, she won the “Étoile de Cristal” (France’s top film award between 1955 and 1975, given by the “Académie française” and later replaced by the César) for Best Actress.
She followed up this groundbreaking performance with an excellent turn in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1960) as a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp. In 1961, she starred opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Pierre Melville’s shocking for its time Leon Morin, Priest as an atheist widow who develops an all-too-intimate relationship with Belmondo’s young and seductive priest. In 1962, her performance in Georges Franju’s Therese Desqueyroux (1962), based on Francois Mauriac’s novel about a miserable wife who tries to poison her husband, won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 23rd Venice Film Festival.
Other notable films include The Hours of Love (1963), Thomas the Impostor (1965), Liberte, le nuit (1984), Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993), Venus Beauty Institute (1999), and Julie Delpy’s Skylab (2011).
In 2011, Austrian director Michael Haneke asked Emmanuelle if she would like to star in his new film Amour, about a retired music teacher named Anne who is failing mentally and physically as a result of a series of strokes. Her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), devotedly cares for her as the proud woman battles the ravages brought on in the twilight of her life. The film is a moving and stark portrait of a couple and their love in the last days of life.
Amour was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and Emmanuelle was nominated for Best Actress (the oldest person ever nominated). The film won while she lost out to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. However, she won the César, the French version of the Oscar, and a BAFTA film award for the role.
Emmanuelle also devoted much time to television, appearing in both series and made-for-television movies including La fin de la nuit (1966), a sequel to Therese. She also returned frequently to the stage. In 1966, she won the “Prix du syndicat de la critique” for Best Actress for her performance in L'Opéra du monde. In 2001, she made her last theatre appearance (at the time) performing in Medea at the Festival d’Avignon. But with her success in the 2012 film Amour, she returned to the Paris stage in 2014, co-starring with Anne Consigny in the Marguerite Duras play Savannah Bay, for which she won the 2014 Prix Beaumarchais.
Away from the stage she loved to write poetry and had three books of poems published: Juste derrière le sifflet des trains (Just Behind the Train Whistle, 1969), Le Feu des miroirs (The Fire of Mirrors,1975) and L'Otage du désir (The Hostage of Desire, 1982). She also authored a book of photographs, Tu n'as rien vu à Hiroshima (You Did Not See Anything In Hiroshima), she took during the filming of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. And in 2014 she published her autobiography, C'est délit-cieux!: Entrer dans la confidence (It’s a Heinous Crime: Enter in Confidence).
In February 2013, she gave an interview to London’s Guardian newspaper in which she summed up her career: “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. I think that being an actor is like being a cat. You have the opportunity to go out and live nine lives. And then you can come home and sleep by the fire.”