An only child, Emmanuelle was born Paulette Germaine Riva in Cheniménil, but eventually grew up in Remiremont. Her mother, Jeanne Fernande Nourdin, was a seamstress. Her father, René Alfred “Alfredo” Riva, was a sign writer. Her paternal grandfather was Italian. She dreamed of becoming an actress since she was six, so that the entire world would take notice of her. This ambition was, however, to be met with firm opposition from her own family. Emmanuelle’s father, a strict disciplinarian to whom the word “actress” was basically a synonym for “prostitute”, disapproved of her way of thinking, since it clashed with the simple values he wished to pass on to her. Emmanuelle felt great affection towards her parents, but, at the same time, was under the impression that they couldn’t really understand what she wanted. A bit of a tomboy and a rebel in her schooldays, she showed little interest in studying, but always directed her passion towards acting, appearing in every year-end play. In her early 20’s, Emmanuelle was to find out the true meaning of nervous depression. Having completed the seamstress apprenticeship she had started at age 15, she eventually resigned herself to take up this profession, also discouraged by the thought that, in a city like Remiremont, the only possible alternative was to become a hairdresser. The sense of boredom that was weighing her down actually got so devouring that sewing sort of became the only form of escape from the horror of her everyday reality. But luckily, things were soon to change for the better. The day Emmanuelle discovered the announcement of a contest at the Dramatic Arts Centre of Rue Blanche was the day she found the courage to stand up to her parents and state that she would have traveled to Paris to become an actress. Having finally understood the depth of her sadness, her family couldn’t oppose her wishes any longer, so, on the 13th May of 1953, she arrived in Paris.
At the Rue Blanche contest, Emmanuelle auditioned in front of one of the leading actors and directors of the Comédie-Française, the great Jean Meyer. She acted one scene from “On ne badine pas avec l’Amour” by Alfred de Musset. Meyer and the other acting teachers in the jury were just mesmerized by her performance and immediately realized that they had found the next big thing. It goes without saying that Emmanuelle was awarded a scholarship and Meyer himself decided to take her as his own pupil. At 26, Riva was too old to enter the French National Academy of Dramatic Arts, but she soon got her big break anyway, since French stage pillar René Dupuy cast her in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man”. Her next theatrical credits were “Mrs.Warren’s Profession” (Shaw), “L’espoir” (Henri Bernstein), “Le dialogue des Carmélites” (Georges Bernanos), Britannicus (Jean Racine), “Il seduttore” (Diego Fabbri). Emmanuelle’s small screen debut was in a 1957 episode of the history program Énigmes de l’histoire (1956), “Le Chevalier d’Éon”. In the program, she played the Queen of England opposite Marcelle Ranson-Hervé as the cross-dressing knight in the service of the French crown. 1958, on the other hand, was the year that saw her first film appearance, an uncredited role in the Jean Gabin movie The Possessors (1958). The following year would, however, mark a turning point in her career. Emmanuelle was starring in the Dominique Rolin play “L’Epouvantail” at the “théatre de L’Oeuvre” in Paris when one night she found a visitor in her dressing room. His name was Alain Resnais and he was a young director responsible for a few shorts and documentaries (including the Holocaust-themed masterpiece Nuit et brouillard (1956)). He was apparently looking for the female lead of his first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), based on a script by the great author, Marguerite Duras. Having seen a picture of Riva in a playbill of the production she was starring in, Resnais had immediately urged to see her. Without promising her anything, the director just asked Emmanuelle if he could take a few photos of her, so that he would have later shown them to Duras for a response. In addition to this, he also invited her at his place where he filmed her reciting some lines from “Arms and the Man”. When he brought Duras the material, the author set her eyes on Emmanuelle’s melancholic, enigmatic expression and immediately realized that they had found the one they were looking for. “Hiroshima Mon Amour” turned out to be one of the most acclaimed and representative movies of the French New Wave and launched both Resnais and Riva’s careers in full orbit. Being somehow familiar with a sense of captivity, Emmanuelle gave an incredibly personal and involving performance as the unnamed heroine of the movie, and it was one that came straight from her heart. Playing an actress from Nevers who develops a love affection towards a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) while filming an anti-war movie in Hiroshima, Emmanuelle helped modernizing acting and female figures in film through an intimate, almost minimalistic woman portrayal that was quite unlike anything else that had been seen on the silver screen to that moment. Speaking her character’s thoughts through a great deal of voice-over that could give the viewer constant access to her mind (making for an unusual amount of psychological introspection) , she was able to masterfully translate every last one of these feelings to subtle facial expressions whose richness and eloquence made her face the mirror of the compex soul she was baring before the camera. Combining this heartfelt approach with a refined diction that could perfectly deliver Duras’ deep, existentialist lines of dialogue, she gave the world a new type of heroine who, while set apart by a distinctive intellectual charm, remained very humanly relatable. This ground-breaking acting was greatly praised by the critics of the time who were most open to innovation, including some that later became masters of revolutionary cinema themselves. Jean-Luc Godard stated: “Let’s take the character played by Emmanuelle Riva. If you ran into her on the street, or saw her every day, I think she would only be of interest to a very limited number of people. But in the film she interests everyone. For me, she’s the kind of girl who works at the “Editions du Seuil” or for “L’Express”, a kind of 1959 George Sand. A priori, she doesn’t interest me, because I prefer the kind of girl you see in [Renato] Castellani’s film. This said, Resnais has directed Emmanuelle Riva in such a prodigious way that now I want to read books from “Le Seuil” or “L’Express”.” This was Éric Rohmer’s take on Riva’s ‘Elle’: ” She isn’t a classical heroine, at least not one that a certain classical cinema has habituated us to see, from David Griffith to ‘Nicholas Ray’.” Jacques Doniol-Valcroze summed her up this way: “She is unique. It’s the first time that we’ve seen on the screen an adult woman with an interiority and a capacity for reasoning pushed to such a degree. Emmanuelle Riva is a modern adult woman because she is not an adult woman. She is, on the contrary, very childlike, guided by her impulses alone and not by her ideas.” And Jean Domarchi commented that “In a sense, Hiroshima is a documentary on Emmanuelle Riva.” The phenomenal intelligence and dramatic intensity of Emmanuelle’s performance made “Elle” one of the most indelible characters in film history: however, while Duras’ screenplay received an Oscar nomination, her star-making turn was sadly overlooked by the Academy. At least she won the “Étoile de Cristal” (the top film award in France between 1955 and 1975, given by the “Académie française” and later replaced by the César) for Best Actress for her work in the movie.
One year later, Emmanuelle was known as a major talent and, consequently, plenty of directors from different nationalities were knocking at her door. She followed her Hiroshima success with two acclaimed turns in Le huitième jour (1960) and Recours en grâce (1960). In addition to playing these leading roles for French cinema, a scene-stealing Riva was also seen as Simone Signoret’s feisty friend in Antonio Pietrangeli’s excellent Hungry for Love (1960) and gave the standout performance in Gillo Pontecorvo’s superb Kapò (1960) as a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp. Enter 1961: another year, another career highlight. Emmanuelle was cast opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Pierre Melville’s ground-breaking (and shocking for its time) Léon Morin, prêtre (1961). In the movie, Riva’s Barny, an atheist widow, and Belmondo’s Morin, a young and seductive priest, develop a deep, theological relationship with strong sexual implications. Melville cast Emmanuelle thinking that she possessed the kind of intellectual eroticism the character needed and decided to demean her appearance as much as possible by having her dressed in the plainest clothes, so that Barny’s major appeal would have been the cultural vivacity shining through her beautiful facial features. Riva and Belmondo’s performances turned out to be outstanding and the film, against all odds, ended up being a big success. Riva next appeared in Climates of Love (1962), the first (and only) feature film of TV writer and director Stellio Lorenzi, the man behind celebrated history programs such as La caméra explore le temps (1957) and its immediate predecessor, “Énigmes de L’Histoire”, where Emmanuelle had done her screen debut. Adapting André Maurois’ novel, Lorenzi hired Emmanuelle seeing her great interpretative sensitivity as being close to the nature of the character she would have played in the movie, also starring Jean-Pierre Marielle and Marina Vlady. In the story, Marielle is torn between sacred and profane love, leaving Vlady’s vain and frivolous Odile for Riva’s kind and good-hearted Isabelle. The same year, Emmanuelle scored another huge personal triumph as the title heroine of Georges Franju’s Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962). Her performance as François Mauriac’s ill-fated 20th century Emma Bovary was a true masterpiece of psychological introspection: she perfectly captured all the key traits of the character at once, making her vulnerability coexist with her spirit of rebellion and her desire for freedom go along with a strong sense of self-destruction. Emmanuelle’s work in the movie won her enormous raves and a sacred, unanimous Volpi Cup at Venice Film Festival. For the rest of the 60’s (her golden period), Emmanuelle kept playing leading roles in French and Italian movies alike and also kept expanding her work to the TV medium. She found excellent, showcasing roles both in Thomas l’imposteur (1965) (where she was directed by Franju for the second and last time) and in the lovely comedy Le ore dell’amore (1963) where she enjoyed a very unusual kind of wedding to Ugo Tognazzi. The third segment of Io uccido, tu uccidi (1965) paired her for the first time with Jean-Louis Trintignant. In this story of “Amour Fou”, Riva plays a woman willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to save Trintignant’s character, a man undeserving of her affection. Some TV work the actress did in this decade deserves to be noted as well. She reprised the role of Thérèse Desqueyroux in La fin de la nuit (1966), a dark and crepuscular adaptation of the Mauriac novel of the same name. This sequel follows Thérèse as she relocates to Paris where she has nothing to do but waiting for death to come. The TV play La forêt noire (1968), a fictionalized retelling of the relationship between Brahms and the Schumanns, featured another remarkable Riva performance, and so did Caterina (1963), which saw her taking on the role of Caterina Cornaro.
Going into the 70’s and 80’s, it wasn’t easy for Emmanuelle to keep replicating the impact of her early performances and, while she always played leading roles in her native France, the majority of her movies didn’t have a great international resonance. Misguided productions like Fernando Arrabal’s J’irai comme un cheval fou (1973) proved totally unworthy of her talent. Like her contemporaries Delphine Seyrig, Bernadette Lafont, Bulle Ogier and Edith Scob, she liked to pick alternative, anti-mainstream projects, stating that she had no interest in doing things that had already been done before. In this period, she declined countless roles because she found them too traditional and, as a direct consequence of this, most directors stopped making her any more offers. Between 1982 and 1983 she was served with another couple of meaty parts to sink her teeth into. The first was in Marco Bellocchio’s Gli occhi, la bocca (1982) (an underrated sequel of sorts to Fists in the Pocket (1965)) as the mother of Lou Castel, here taking on the role of Giovanni, the actor who had supposedly played Alessandro in the classic movie. The second was in Philippe Garrel’s poignant Liberté, la nuit (1984) where she was paired with the director’s father, the glorious actor, Maurice Garrel. In the subsequent years, Emmanuelle always found work in respectable productions, with the great director occasionally calling her for a project of superior quality (like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993)) but the great roles seemed to be way behind her by now. In 2008, she had a nice cameo in Un homme et son chien (2008), a French remake of Umberto D. (1952) which reunited her with her “Léon Morin, prêtre” co-star, Jean-Paul Belmondo. Riva briefly appears in the movie as a gentle lady who meets Belmondo’s character -not coincidentally- in a church. She was soon to enjoy, however, an incredible and unforeseen career renaissance.
In 2010, Emmanuelle was cast in Michael Haneke’s latest movie, Amour (2012). The script managed as well to get Jean-Louis Trintignant out of retirement and frequent Haneke collaborator Isabelle Huppert also got on board for the ride. Haneke had written the script with precisely Trintignant in mind, but hadn’t already thought of a specific actress to play the leading female role. The director had greatly admired Emmanuelle’s performance in “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, but wasn’t much familiar with her subsequent work. Still, a recent photo of hers lead him to think that she would have been believable as Trintignant’s wife and decided to audition her along with a few other actresses her age. It soon became obvious that she was the best choice in the world. The Austrian director’s most recent masterpiece follows Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Riva), a long time married couple whose life changes drastically when she suffers a stroke. An incredibly deep reflection about the two most important components of life, love and death, Haneke’s heartbreaking movie took Cannes film festival by storm, making obvious from the day it was screened that no other film had the slightest possibility to win the Golden Palm. A fundamental part of “Amour”‘s success were of course the immense central performances of its two leads. Jury president Nanni Moretti would have liked to give “Amour” the main festival prize along with top acting honors for its two veteran stars, but unfortunately a festival rule forbids to give any other major award to the Golden Palm winner. Moretti was displeased by this, but he still managed to find a way to recognize Trintignant and Riva’s work. Although the Best Actor Award went to Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt (2012) and the Best Actress Award was given to Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur for Beyond the Hills (2012), the Golden Palm which the director was awarded was given alongside a special mention to the film’s leads for their indispensable work. All three were invited on the stage to make an acceptance speech: it was one of the highest honors a thespian could ever dream of. Although Haneke remains the only official recipient of the Palm, Riva and Trintignant were, in spirit, the big acting winners of the 65th edition of the prestigious film festival. But the love for “Amour” wasn’t to end here. After it amazed the audience at Toronto film festival, it became clear that the film would have done this over and over while getting screened all around the globe. Further accolades for the movie came at the end of November, when it scored an impressive four wins at the European Film Awards (Picture, Director, Actor and Actress). In the following weeks, Emmanuelle also racked up a good share of critic awards in America, including wins from major groups such as the National Society of Film Critics. On Oscar nominations day, Emmanuelle’s performance was recognized along with the movie, its director and its screenplay. Having traveled to New York to attend the 2013 National Board of Review awards (where Amour had been named “Best Foreign Language Film”), Emmanuelle was still there when, bright and early, her room neighbors’ jubilation cheers told her that she had been nominated. In great humbleness, she stated that she didn’t expect it because ‘there’s plenty of talented people everywhere’. Shortly after, she also added a BAFTA to her mantle. After her triumph, Culture and communication Minister Aurélie Filippetti complimented Emmanuelle on her charisma and on the quality of her performance and stated that she would have defended France’s colors at the upcoming Oscars. Emmanuelle’s next appointment was with an overdue first César. After receiving a well-deserved standing ovation, she made a very beautiful and moving speech, quoting Von Kleist and paying homage to Maurice Garrel. A couple of days later she attended the Oscars and eventually failed to win the award, but this couldn’t change the fact that she had made history already. Having always been in possession of one of cinema’s most expressive faces, being equally effective with her physical language and having displayed unsurpassable courage and honesty in portraying the deterioration of Anne’s body and soul, Emmanuelle gave a performance that went beyond every linguistic barrier and strongly touched and affected everyone who saw it. Her stunning work is for the ages.
Having hit such a high note near the end of her film career, it seems only natural that Emmanuelle did the same thing on the Parisian stage shortly after, scoring a new triumph in Didier Bezace’s production of Marguerite Duras’ play “Savannah Bay”, which marked her theatrical return after a 13 years absence. Acting a text of the celebrated author who had penned the movie which had simultaneously given her immediate fame and screen immortality was the most inspired way to bring her exceptional career to full circle. Duras had written the part (originally performed by Madeleine Renaud) on the condition that only an actress no longer in the spring of youth would have played it: disregarding this wish would have been a mistake, but it must be added that no other actress in the same age range and associated with the author could have been an equally perfect choice. Wearing that slightly absent look loaded with a mixture of vulnerability and melancholy that only she can do so effectively, the actress reached- for the few, privileged ones who witnessed this new achievement- some basically unmatchable levels of heartbreak, repeating several times the words ‘mon amour’ to such an involving and powerful effect no one else could have produced. The actress stated that she would have probably refused to ever return to the stage hadn’t she been offered this part. And her choice was, once again, a winning one. Emmanuelle kept working regularly for the next two years– shooting films and doing poetry recitals all around Europe– until she died on the 27 January 2017 after a secret battle with cancer. As profoundly devastating as the news of this artistic and human loss were, the world had to salute with utmost admiration a woman who, true to her formidable spirit, always lived a life that was determined by the choices she wanted.
Now, considering that she won her first audience by acting one scene from “On ne badine pas avec l’Amour” in front of her future mentor, got her international consecration by playing the leading role in “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and rose from her ashes with her superlative work in “Amour”, one can conclude that the word Amour is most definitely a good luck charm to Emmanuelle Riva.