An Oscar-nominated role in Amour has made 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva a star for the second time. She talks to Kim Willsher.
Emmanuelle Riva is not given to sentimental nonsense. Finding herself an international star at 85, however, does have a fairy tale element about it, admits the surprise star of the surprise hit French film Amour.
"This film is such a wonderful, marvellous, extraordinary gift. I cannot tell you how happy I am. Completely happy," Riva says. "The whole thing is like a fairy tale. Everybody knows there are very few roles for older actresses. Almost none, in fact. And that is what makes all this so exceptional."
Riva wasn't at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) Awards ceremony this week to hear she had won the best actress award. She was saving herself for the Gallic equivalent, the Cesars, in a fortnight. Then the Oscars - on the day of her 86th birthday - beckon.
The acclaim for Riva and Amour are exceptional in an industry that has always preferred its mainstream stars to be fresh of face, lithe of figure and delivering their lines in English. Riva, the oldest nominee ever for the best actress category, has a very Gallic disdain for such public adulation.
"I cannot possibly come to London. How can I? I have to go to the Cesars and the Oscars and already I am so, so tired and so, so harassed," she says with all the good grace she can muster. "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 star who cannot wait for her 15 minutes in the spotlight to be over? Riva is not being curmudgeonly (well, not much), but it is easy to forget that she is not playing at being an octogenarian. Besides, she enjoyed global recognition more than half a century ago in the cult 1959 film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the Alain Resnais film seen as a catalyst for France's nouvelle vague movement.
In that film, in which 30-year-old Riva played an unnamed French woman talking to her young Japanese lover about the bombing of Hiroshima, it is her voice, poetically repeating the same lines, that stayed etched on the memory long after the black-and-white credits rolled. Speaking from her Paris flat, 54 years on, Riva's voice is still as mellifluous and as gently mesmerising.
In Amour, directed by Michael Haneke, she is Anne, a retired piano teacher in her 80s, seeing out the twilight years in the bourgeois comfort of a chic Paris apartment with her husband, Georges, played by the equally veteran French star Jean-Louis Trintignant, until a series of strokes sparks dementia, physical disability and a slow dismantling of her body and mind. With the exception of one scene, the film is set in the couple's flat, adding to the sense of walls closing in on the devoted couple.
The critics have raved about Amour: to some it is a "beautifully calculated demise" or "old age that refuses to be swept under the carpet and mindlessly 'othered"'; to others it shows "Haneke's flair for the emotionally brutal" and is an "overlong unblinking meditation on life's last act".
Riva says she knew she wanted the role as soon as she read the script.
"I knew intimately that I could do it, that I had arrived at a point in my life to do it. It seemed like a miracle. Haneke had seen Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Clearly, he wanted to see me again after all these years. I was in his head perhaps. He thought I could play Anne, so we met for lunch. Afterwards we filmed one scene; the scene in the kitchen when Anne has her first absence. Haneke said it was the most difficult scene in the film. Afterwards we looked at the rushes. He had seen other actresses, this was only natural, but he said it was me who had touched him most.
"He had already chosen Trintignant to play the husband. When I knew it was Trintignant, I thought we would work well together on the film. And we did. Nobody who has seen the film can doubt that this is a couple who love each other, a couple everyone can believe in."
Riva, the only daughter of an Italian signwriter and his wife, was born in eastern France. She decided as a child she wanted to be an actress, but for a girl living in a provincial village, from a modest family with no connection to the world of theatre or cinema, it seemed an impossible ambition.
"My father wanted me to continue my studies. To do what ... who knows? I knew my passion was acting. But in the meantime I had to do something so I learned to sew. My parents certainly didn't decide my destiny was as a seamstress, as some have written."
Legend has it that Riva's father was painting a shop sign when the owner, who also ran the local amateur dramatics group, asked if he knew of a young girl interested in taking a role in the next play. Afterwards, Riva, then in her early 20s, left for Paris where she enrolled in acting school.
"I would have liked to have started acting at 17 years old, but it was a miracle in itself that I even got started at all."
After Hiroshima, Mon Amour, described by director Eric Rohmer as "the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema", Riva shunned many "commercial" roles.
"Because I turned down offers, they stopped calling. They forgot me. You make an empty space and the empty space comes to you," she once said.
Haneke told the New York Times last year: "As a young man I'd been captivated by Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima, Mon Amour. But after that I lost her from view."
In the past half century, Riva did not completely disappear. She worked on the stage until 2001 and had roles in Three Colours: Blue and Skylab, the Julie Delpy drama, and wrote books of poetry, but even in France was known only by serious cinephiles. Which makes her second 15 minutes of fame even more extraordinary.
"Of course, I am totally in this role. I don't have any regrets because I couldn't have done a role like this at 40 years of age. This film arrived at the exact age of my life. What regrets could I possibly have?" she says.
She insists she had no idea Amour would be such a success and to think so in advance would just "rot my head".
"How could I say no to this film? A project so marvellous, of such quality with such a director. I didn't ask questions, I just said yes," she says. "They said the film's story would make people afraid, would put them off. It hasn't. The truth is this story could happen to anyone. It could happen to me, it could happen to you; it's about the very important subjects: life, love death."
Who: Emmanuelle Riva, veteran French actress
What: Amour by Michael Michael Haneke
When: Opens February 28
- TimeOut / Observer