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THE most remarkable event in the “honours season” to date has been the nomination of Emmanuelle Riva for a best actress Academy Award, and for her triumph at this week’s Bafta Awards where she scooped the main prize for her role in Michael Haneke’s Amour.
The reason? The French actress is 85 and the oldest person to receive an Oscar nomination. That in itself is a remarkable feat in an industry that values youth and physical beauty above all else.
Riva’s movie career will now be noted for two extraordinary achievements – in films that both had “amour” in the title – that marked its beginning and, in all probability, its ending.
The beginning was special enough. Born in Chenimenil, Vosges, France, on February 24, 1927, Riva’s parents were fiercely opposed to her desire to become an actress, believing it represented a slippery slope to moral degradation.
After qualifying as a seamstress, of all things, in her home town, Riva broke free of her parents when she fled to Paris in 1953, winning a scholarship at the Dramatic Arts Centre of Rue Blanche. Her career, mainly confined to the theatre, was launched.
One evening, while acting in a play in Paris, Riva received a visitor, a virtually unknown director who, up to then, had only been responsible for a few shorts and documentaries.
The director, Alain Resnais, who would become world famous, took some photographs of her and found that her melancholy beauty was just the right look for his first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, to be scripted by the great French writer Marguerite Duras.
Hiroshima Mon Amour was one of the high-water marks of the French New Wave movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
It featured Riva as a French actress who has an affair with a Japanese architect in the city where one of two American atom bombs were detonated in 1945.
The film explores their past lives and explores, through carefully orchestrated, very brief flashbacks, the sensitive, complex links between personal memory and historical events.
Riva played the character “Elle”, a woman whose wartime past had involved having an affair with a German soldier, an event that led to her head being shaved in prison after she was condemned as a collaborator.
The film, is, in essence, a non-linear 36-hour conversation between the two lovers as they prepare to take their leave of each other. The French master, Jean-Luc Godard, described it as “Faulkner plus Stravinsky”, praising its flashback technique.
In the 54 years between that film and Amour, Riva practically disappeared from public view, saying that she had never wanted to be a star. She appeared in many plays and several low-profile films, with the exception of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue, in which she played the role of Juliette Binoche’s mother.
Riva, who never married or had children, lives alone in a flat in Paris.
Asked before the Bafta awards if she would come to London, she replied with some disdain: “I cannot possibly come to London. How can I? I have to go to the Césars and the Oscars and already I am so, so tired and so, so harassed. For five months people have not left me alone. I have done 15 interviews a day, sometimes.
“After the Oscars I intend to rest and I can tell you that I cannot wait until it is after the Oscars.”
What a refreshing attitude for a woman who clearly doesn’t care a jot about her 15 minutes of fame.
In Amour, Riva plays Anne, a retired piano teacher who lives with her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in a chic Paris flat.
A series of strokes spark dementia and an unravelling of their lives, a process that Haneke charts with a mixture of tragedy, exquisite sentiment and brutality.
In the title role, Riva is, quite simply, heart-rendingly magnificent and I’ll be cheering for her at the Academy Awards.