After a very long, sporadic, and important career, the French film star Emmanuelle Riva died at the age of 89 on Friday, January 27th. According to her agent, Anne Alvares Correa, the cause of death was cancer.
In addition to being the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar for her role in the French film Amour (2012), Emmanuelle Riva was even more widely known in France for her groundbreaking work in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). The anti-war film follows an affair between a French actress, played by Rivas, and a Japanese architect, played by Eiji Okada, during the course of World War II.
Directed by Alain Resnais, Hiroshima Mon Amour was heralded as the first internationally acclaimed movie to come out of the French New Wave genre – a genre that rejected traditional cinematic storytelling methods. Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice even called the director’s first feature film “the most important contribution to realizable film aesthetics since Citizen Kane.” Furthermore, critic Michael Koresky praised Riva’s performance, saying that “the range of feelings that run across Riva’s face is perhaps the most unforgettable element.” Even Riva recognized the importance of this film, giving an interview at the Cannes film festival in 1959 in which she talked about her peak as an actress: “I feel like I might be a disappointment after this, because Resnais pushed me to excel. He made me reach certain heights.”
That’s where Riva was wrong, though – however profound Hiroshima Mon Amour was, it was certainly not the end of her career. For a long time, she was not a very busy actress, as she told The New York Times in 2013, “I refused as many offers as I accepted… I refused commercial roles.” She also expressed some regret at this fact, saying, “it was wrong, I have been too extreme, and I don’t say it was good.”
The regret may have been misplaced, though, as she finished her career with an equally touching role in Amour. Directed by Michael Haneke, who had been captivated by Riva from the moment he saw Hiroshima Mon Amour, the film follows an elderly couple as they deal with the consequences of aging. Riva did not win the Oscar she was nominated for, which went to Jennifer Lawrence, but she did break the hearts of millions of viewers with her portrayal of Anne, a chronically ill retired music teacher. And as with everything, she did so with complete grace and dignity.