Best Actress of the Decade, Entry No. 30: Emmanuelle Riva

To celebrate the last decade 2010-2019 we are counting down the best actresses and discussing some of their most notable and memorable performances of the decade. With the help of Film Twitter, the ITOL team have selected 30 actresses. Our first piece is on Emmanuelle Riva, who won a BAFTA for her performance in Michael Haneke’s 2012 film “Amour”.

Throughout her career, the French Actress Emmanuelle Riva starred in over 90 films between the 1957- 2016. She’s perhaps best well-known for her role in the French New Wave film “Hiroshima mon amour” (1959), but she also managed to dominate the screen with one of last decade’s best performances in Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012). Riva was awarded a BAFTA for her performance, won Best Actress at the 38th César Awards and nominated for an Oscar, (making her the oldest nominee for the Best Actress in a leading performance- she lost to Jennifer Lawrence).


“Amour,” tells the story of Anne (Riva), a former concert pianist who suffers from the consequences of two strokes, while being cared for by her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who watches her slowly wither away in front of his eyes. At the very start of the film, we watch as police discover Anne’s body in her bed, with flowers all over her and her husband appears to be missing. We know from the very start that Anne will die, and it’s a mystery of sorts as to how we ended up at this point with Haneke taking us back to the events leading up to the discovery of Anne.

Riva gives us an unflinching view of the devastations of old age, and at times just a simple experssion on her face manages to convey so much emotion and anguish.

We begin at a concert in which Anne and Georges attend, and we watch them on their bus journey home and returning to their apartment, going about their business before going to bed. Everything appears normal, and it isn’t until the very next morning when something disastrous occurs.  A series of strokes spark dementia, physical disability as Anne becomes a prisoner in her own body. Aside from the opening scene at the concert, the film is set in the couple’s flat, creating a sense of claustrophobia, as both Anne and Georges become trapped in this all too real nightmarish world.

Riva gives us an unflinching view of the devastations of old age, and at times just a simple expression on her face manages to convey so much emotion and anguish. In one scene she struggles to pour a cup of tea, and a less than capable actress would have made this moment too dramatic, but Riva performs in a natural subtle manner which adds to the level of realism in the film. Gently she places the pot down, and glances at her hand, the lack of music or dramatic close-up camera angles allows the viewer to carefully observe the performance and process the incident for themselves. Haneke treats the viewer with respect and intelligence.

armour kitche

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role because Riva brings so much passion and energy to the film even though it’s a very graceful and elegant performance which isn’t theatrical. When asked about how she became involved in the project, Riva stated the following

“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.”

amour on set
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Michael Haneke, and Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (2012)

“Amour” works not only because of Riva’s powerful performance, but because we fully believe that the characters of Anne and Georges have been a couple for a long time and that they still remain devoted to each other. There are little intimate moments where we see the couple interact with each other, and it’s the smallest of gestures which speak the loudest. When Anne freezes during the breakfast scene, Georges responds in a natural manner believing that it’s a joke at first, before springing into action, using a wet cloth on her face before going to get dressed. Coupled with Riva’s performance, Trintignant manages to bring so much realism to the film which never descends into Hallmark melodrama or histrionics.

Acting makes you live plenty of lives.

Emmanuelle Riva

Sadly Riva is no longer with us, as she passed away on 27th January 2017. She left behind many memorable performances especially her performance in “Amour” and was not only a well-established actor on-screen but in theatre and also a published poet. She left behind a legacy to be admired and it’s wonderful to have included her on this list.

Do you agree with our pick and what is your favourite performance by Emmanuelle Riva? Let us know in the comments below.

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