Beautiful, eloquent, full of contagious energy and 85 years old, Emmanuelle Riva is not only one of the most emblematic faces of French cinema, but has offered the international film world one of the most talked about performances of the year. With Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour,she took on a challenge many actresses her age might shy away from, playing a woman whose mind and body are being devoured and who redefines the meaning of “love” for her husband. Headed toward her next decade, the poet, photographer, artist and actress spoke about life, filmmaking and the challenges ahead.
Keyframe: I perfectly remember the first time I ever saw you on big screen. It was Hiroshima, mon amour by Alain Resnais.
Emmanuelle Riva: … people have not forgotten this film yet?
Keyframe: Not at all! True, it’s been 53 years since it opened, but I do not think forgetting it would ever be an option.
Riva: I could easily write a whole book on my experiences with Hiroshima…! That part surprised me—like an unexpected gift. I was enthralled with Marguerite Duras script. I also loved Resnais short films. We quickly found a common language, everything seemed very natural and unforced. Our budget was very modest. First thing I heard after coming to Tokyo was that we do not have enough funds, and we cannot be sure if the film will ever be completed. But we made it! I still receive letters from people, who were somehow moved by it. This film is exceptional and timeless and possibly that’s why it has never stopped being watched.
Keyframe: It must have been a beautiful experience, to debut like that.
Riva: It was definitely a significant turn in my acting career, but let’s not forget that when I was offered a part in Hiroshima…I was already an accomplished theater actress. This is where Resnais found me, when looking for a fresh face. Even after all those years I am still so happy it happened.
Keyframe: Did you manage to meet Alain Resnais last year in Cannes? He had a film in the main competition; you were there with Amour…
Riva: I left him a note at the hotel reception, but we were both so in demand that it didn’t happen. At first our films were supposed to screen on the same day, but then the schedule changed and we missed each other by a couple of days. We also didn’t manage to see each others’ films. Life at a festival is incredible: always on the run, always late for something…
Keyframe: Many actors quit acting at certain point. You’ve been active non-stop for over 5 decades. What gives you strength to make your love for acting last?
Riva: Even when I was a little girl, I found words fascinating, written text was something I was passionate about. I wanted to share this joy with other people. I was born in a tiny town in the Vosges Mountains in Eastern France—it might be why I feel a little bit provincial to this day—where we’d go to the cinema from time to time. I was obsessed with acting and bugged my parents all the time, telling them about my big plans for the future. My hometown was where I first acted on stage, thanks to my father, who was otherwise not too supportive of my dreams, because he was scared one day I’d leave and go to a big city. But when he heard a hardware store owner say that a local troupe was looking for a young debutant, he immediately asked: ‘Why not my daughter?’ Being a part of this team was a beautiful experience: I played in several performances, including Anouilh’s Antigone; I also had a poetry recitals there. Step by step I started to realize, that acting was something I wanted to be serious about. But how to make it? How to get to Paris and not get lost?
Keyframe: Finally you gained courage and took this step.
Riva: I found an ad posted by a Theater School in Paris. I left for the big city not knowing anybody there and passed the exam. This is how it all began. It was like a fairytale.
Keyframe: How do you choose your roles? Is there anything that you find particularly interesting in a character?
It was a massacre of body and mind.
Riva: I don’t think we, actors, really choose, I’d rather say we are being chosen. The best we can do is refuse at times. Maybe I’ve done that too often? I was very categorical with my decisions, I was looking for an absolute. Theater spoiled me: I had so many various, demanding parts there! In cinema actors way more often become victims of typecasting, labeling, because it’s easier for filmmakers if we represent certain categories, groups, specializations. And it’s not easy to keep on playing the same part—we want variety! I have always been very thoughtful and tried to look closely at each offer. I was the main character in Therese Desqueyroux and got a best actress prize in Venice for it, or starred in Melville’s Leon Morin, pretre… I always tried to avoid offers that approached me in a non personalized, but stereotypical manner.
Keyframe: Is there one special part among many you’ve played, that you particularly like or value?
Riva: I don’t think about it that way. Of course I loved being in Hiroshima, mon amour, because this was an exceptional film, but I also equally liked plying in Therese… or working with Melville. I worked in Italy for a period of time, starring in Adua et ses compagnes’ with Simone Signoret. They cast me as a prostitute—nobody would ever offer me such part in France. It was a very poetic part, despite the character’s occupation. I don’t think I can choose any more particular parts. Also, working with each director is always a different experience.
Keyframe: Films you were in had scripts written by the best of the best. Has screenwriting ever seemed like an option to you?
Riva: No. These things have nothing in common. I am a poet, but not a writer, not a scriptwriter, not a director. I had written poems and enjoyed it. I still do… I have published three volumes so far, three other ones are complete and I am trying to figure out whether they could be of anyone’s interest. I shall present them to some publisher within next couple of months.
Keyframe: Acting and poetry is not everything you do—your photos from the set of Hiroshima… were published as an album.
Riva: I had a day or two off during the shoot. The director gave me a camera, explained how to use it and obliged me to photograph everything I see. I’d wander around for hours, just taking pictures. Then the pics were printed and for many years they were laying in a cardboard box, for my friends eyes only. One day a Japanese man contacted me. He was organizing exhibitions, found out about them and was thrilled: on these pictures you can see Hiroshima before it was rebuilt, it’s a unique document of times long lost. He made an exhibition, which toured several cities and countries, and afterward it was all published as a photo album. I think the prints are too dark, which is a shame—the original photos had this unique light to them. But still, it’s better than nothing!
Keyframe: For many actors their body and face are tools they use in their work. But for women these are also beauty attributes, very often used also as an argument when applying for a part. How do you, as an artist, cope with the passing time?
Riva: What a nice way to put it: ‘passing time.’ Time stigmatizes us, but it’s people who drift through it, not the other way around: the time itself is immobile. It’s the same for everyone. I’m not sure how do I ‘cope’ with it… I’m definitely not one of these women who go to plastic surgeons every other month. Beauty is not worth fetishizing. I never longed to be a star—it was others who called me that. I have much appreciation for those who want to be young forever, but it seems silly and futile. Chasing youth eternally, it must be terrible…
Keyframe: Is ‘passing time’ something one can come to terms with? Accept?
Riva: I very often say that getting old is something natural, because as we all know, nobody’s immortal. What’s much worse than getting old is health failure. Health is the most important gift: an honor that deserves nourishing and care. Healthy people are happy people. I do whatever is in my power to stay this way. Nothing extravagant, just take care of myself; it’s really easy. Keep a healthy body and a clear mind. One needs to be open to other people, stay free. I’ve always cherished freedom and independence. I think this is why I never got married.
Keyframe: Such freedom can easily be mistaken for loneliness. Aren’t you afraid of being lonely?
Riva: The most important thing is not to fear life. One needs to keep calm when facing old age. Fear destroys everything. You have to experience friendship and love with such fullness and tenderness as in Michael Haneke’s film. I mean real love, not first affection or being enchanted. If we manage to direct our thoughts in this direction and receive similar impulses, we will get piece and happiness in return.
Keyframe: What was you reaction, when Haneke asked you to play Anne in Amour?
Riva: I am 85 years old. There are not too many interesting parts for actors my age, not to mention female actors. For last two years I was still acting, but sporadically, mostly episodes. To take part in a project like that, with a two-month long shooting schedule, doesn’t happen on daily basis. It barely ever happens! I immediately felt emotionally engaged, touched, but not dispirited. The quality of the dialogue assured me that there’s nothing to be hesitant about. All in all, it came upon me like a miracle and made me very, very happy.
Keyframe: Haneke is very often described as a brutal, merciless director…
Riva: Not at all! It’s life that’s merciless. I have to admit I have not seen all of his films, but White Ribbon and Hidden are beautiful films, and so is The Pianist. He approaches reality with such mastery… I don’t like this word, but I will use it: Haneke is, unquestionably, a great artist. We had such a beautiful connection on the set. I knew what to do, how to act. Even in scenes that were very difficult, and there were many. I had to undress, use my body, which was undergoing a gradual degradation on screen. It was a massacre of body and mind.
Keyframe: You and Anne are in a similar age. Didn’t it make it all more emotionally complicated?
Riva: I have to admit that it didn’t scare me, I found it intriguing. I had a gut feeling, I knew I could do it. And I did. Something told me that I was capable of playing this part. If Haneke did not choose me, I’d be devastated.
Keyframe: To me the emotional power of this film comes not only from the great script or masterful directing, but mostly from the incredible, deeply touching acting duo that you and Jean-Louis Trintignant formed. Your on-screen relationship seems completely symbiotic: Anne and Georges are part of the same organism, both indispensable so it can keep on functioning.
My impression is that when the lights are out, we are not leaving the cinema dispirited, but purified.
Riva: Me and Jean-Louis both knew from the very beginning, that Anne and Georges are very believable as a couple. It’s what people have been telling us as well. I think we were a perfect match for this film. I also trusted Haneke, and when this condition is fulfilled, you know you’re on the right path. Trusting the director and the whole crew immediately makes such closeness between actors possible. It is not necessary to be friend to create such on-screen bond. Me and Jean-Louis barely knew each other—we shot one film together fifty years ago and that was it. If it feels like Anne and Georges are like one organism, the better. At the very beginning Haneke told us to be gentle and tender, but with unnecessary sentimentalism or pathos set aside. This was our guideline, and an excellent key to understanding our characters.
Keyframe: How did you work on set?
Riva: We were shooting on a set built in a film studio in the outskirts of Paris. I was not afraid of being in a closed space, it felt necessary and I don’t think there was any better way to work. I even asked the producers for permission to live in my wardrobe for the period of the shooting, I didn’t want to waste time for daily commute. Not for a second did I feel claustrophobic. Seine is right nearby, so I could walk a lot. I was happy. Despite the difficult subject this film touches upon, not once did I feel sorrow. My work gives me joy. And Haneke is a very cheerful person.
Keyframe: Friendly atmosphere on the set is always important, but in case of such difficult film it seems almost essential. How important was the crew’s support for you during the most demanding, challenging scenes?
Riva: The team we worked in was simply remarkable. It did help me a lot, especially when the scenes were difficult, like the one when my character has her diaper changed. This moment was also very embarrassing for the actress, who played the nurse. There were two cameras rolling, one intimately close to my face. The whole time I felt like her embarrassment was infectious—there were tears in my eyes, and so in everybody else’s. We were all together in this moment. Now: can you imagine that Haneke never actually used those close-ups? Unlike many other directors, who want powerful, realistic takes, he handled it with incredible gentleness, so tactfully. The power of Amour is restraint. Haneke is a great humanist. His artistry cannot be defined.
Keyframe: To me Amour redefines the meaning of love: by pushing its context to a certain extreme it enables the viewer to understand how broad and deep the meaning of the term ‘love’ can really be. What is it to you?
Riva: It is a story of human fate, of the inescapability of death and pain. But subsequently we are able to see ourselves in it; we can experience the true love that it emanates. What is also really important is the message that we are all separate individuals, each with an own, expressive character that should be respected. My impression is that when the lights are out, we are not leaving the cinema dispirited, but purified.
[A shorter version of this interview has been previously published in polish magazine ‘Zwierciadło’ (11/2012)]