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‘Amour’ star Riva dies at 89 – ‘She had a deeply impact on French cinema’

This file photo taken on Feb 22, 2013 shows French actress Emmanuelle Riva holding her trophy after receiving the Best Actress award for the film ‘Amour’ (Love) during the 38th Cesar Awards ceremony at the Chatelet theatre in Paris. (AFP)

PARIS, Jan 29, (Agencies): French actress Emmanuelle Riva, star of 1959 classic “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and more recently the oldest best actress Oscar nominee in a late-career revival, died Friday from cancer. She was 89.

Riva died in Paris “after a long illness,” her agent, Anne Alvares Correa, told AFP. But Riva “was active until the end,” Correa added.

Riva, whose 60-year acting career spanned film, TV, and theatre, was nominated at 86 for a best leading actress Academy Award for “Amour”, which won best foreign film Oscar in 2013.

“Emmanuelle Riva had a deeply impact on French cinema, whether it be with ‘Hiroshima mon Amour’ … to invoke a wounded memory or, with ‘Amour’ … to invoke the end of life,” said French President Francois Hollande.

“She created intense emotion in all of the roles she embodied,” Hollande added.

Riva was born on Feb 24, 1927 in rural France and made her way to Paris at 19 to the dismay of her working-class family.

She took acting lessons, obtaining a scholarship, and began her career on the stage.

That’s where famed French New Wave pioneer Alain Resnais spotted her, and he quickly cast her in her first leading feature role in “Hiroshima mon Amour”.

The role endeared her to French cinema fans and propelled her into iconic status in her homeland. The film is the story of a brief affair between a French actor and a Japanese architect in post-war Hiroshima.

“Her voice brought the screenplay by Marguerite Duras to life,” Gilles Jacob, the former Cannes Film Festival president, told AFP. “She turned it into a unique thing, like something like a religious cantata.”

Riva, with her arresting brunette beauty and distinct voice, went on to work with a slew of celebrated European directors, including Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Franju and Andre Cayatte.

In more recent years she had been relegated to playing mothers and grandmothers when Austrian director Michael Haneke approached her for “Amour” and rebooted her career.

Haneke, best known for “The Piano Teacher” and “Hidden” (“Cache”), cast Riva in the French-language film as one-half of an octogenarian Parisian couple, Georges and Anne.

The pair lead a contented life until her health takes a turn for the worse, and the pair must deal with her increasing dependence and lack of mobility.

The film was a brutally honest and intense look into the couple’s loving relationship and how love helps two individuals through hardship but ultimately destroys them.

“Every individual has many lives within them,” Riva told AFP in 2012 during the Cannes Film Festival. “And in this career, we develop all these opportunities and it’s exciting.”

At the Oscars she lost out for the Oscar to Jennifer Lawrence, who won for “Silver Linings Playbook”.

Riva earned a Cesar, the French version of an Oscar, for her performance in “Amour”, saying her role “was a liberating experience”.

Sublime

“A great and sublime actress has left us,” said French-Armenian film producer Alain Terzian, president of the Cesars.

Despite her cancer, Riva performed at the Villa Medici in Rome last autumn and completed filming on two films, one due out this March and another yet to be released.

Riva never married and had no children, telling the French newspaper Liberation in 2012 she had no desire to saddle herself with either.

“There is great joy in feeling like you can escape yourself to go who knows where,” Riva said in 2014 after winning the Beaumarchais Award for best actress.

“They say ‘go into the skin of a character’, that sounds a bit stupid, but in fact, it’s exactly that, with all the flesh and spirit, and heart.”

Haneke’s “Amour” went on to win the Palme d’Or, with a special mention for stars Riva and Louis Trintignant. Riva also won best actress for the film at the European Film Awards and the BAFTAs.

Riva became the oldest nominee in the category ever when she was nominated for the Oscar best actress award in 2013.

In between these Cannes bookends, Riva appeared in over 70 features, mainly shot in France or Italy and quite a few of them, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, made for TV. Besides the two Cannes titles, she is best remembered for her roles in three Venice fest premieres: Jean-Pierre Melville’s then-scandalous “Leon Morin, Priest” (1961), in which she played a young atheist widow who enters into a complicated relationship with the eponymous cleric; director Georges Franju’s 1962 Francois Mauriac adaptation “Therese Desqueyroux,” in which she played the despondent titular protag; and Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1993 title “Three Colors: Blue,” in which she essayed Juliette Binoche’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. Riva won Venice’s best actress Coppa Volpi for “Desqueyroux.”

Riva worked with a number of important directors, including Gillo Pontecorvo, Marco Bellocchio and Philippe Garrel, and the actress’s filmography reveals a breadth of work and a capacity to suggest conflicting feelings without necessarily using dialogue or relying on the strict meaning of spoken words. But what’s especially noteworthy about her career is the precision with which she chose her roles, almost all of them seemingly offering a fresh new challenge.

Not everyone was happy that Riva seemed interested only in complex femme characters. When promoting “Amour,” she admitted in French weekly Le Point that she had refused so many roles that perhaps people stopped had calling her for fear of being rejected again. “Maybe I should have done more mainstream work,” she said at the time, though the many roles she did play showcase an exceptional level of commitment that she probably would not have brought to more commercial and less challenging fare.

An exception that confirms the rule is Riva’s supporting role in Franco-American director Tonie Marshall’s 1999 hit “Venus Beauty Institute” (she also appeared in a couple of episodes of its spinoff tube series, “Venus and Apollo”). But this R-rated comedy went on to win the Cesar, the French Oscar equivalent, for best film, suggesting it was highly esteemed by industry peers as well as the audience.

Emmanuelle was born Paulette Riva in France’s eastern Vosges region. She came from a working-class family that had foreseen a career as a seamstress for Riva, though the plays she devoured as a reader made her decide to join a regional theater troupe, and her work with them convinced her to move to Paris and become an actress.

She was already 26 when she was accepted, on a scholarship, by the ENSATT theater school. Her first stage role in the capital was in George Bernard Shaw’s comedy “Arms and the Man,” and it was onstage, several years later, that Resnais spotted the actress he would cast in “Hiroshima.”

Riva remained loyal to the theater throughout her career, though the number of plays in which she appeared diminished in the 1990s. She last treaded the boards in 2001, in Euripides’ Greek tragedy “Medea,” and appeared in a TV adaptation of the play in the same year alongside future “Amour” co-star Isabelle Huppert.

Besides her work as a thesp in film, TV and on stage, she was also a published poet, having written three collections of poetry published between 1969 and 1982. A series of photographs she took in Hiroshima during the shoot of her first feature was published in book form in 2008.

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