With her searing portrayal of Anne, a former music teacher who must confront her mortality in painful increments in director Michael Haneke's bracingly unsentimental "Amour," 84-year-old Emmanuelle Riva has wowed critics.
The idea of tackling such challenging material didn't faze Riva, who costars with another of France's top actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant. "I found myself racing onto set," she says, "so drawn was I to the character and the project we were engaged in."
The study of an elderly Parisian couple opened in the U.S. on Wednesday already one of 2012's most honored films, having racked up top prizes including the Cannes Palme d'Or, a near sweep of the European Film Awards and best picture of the year from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
On the phone from Paris, Riva spoke through a translator about "Amour" and the course of her career. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
The great themes of "Amour" — love and death — hark back to one of your first films, "Hiroshima Mon Amour," a landmark work of the French New Wave. Do you see any parallels between the two movies? In your career, have you consciously chosen to tackle a certain kind of material?
There are these echoes, you're absolutely right, these coincidences, an interweaving of themes, because it seems to me "Amour" is a film about love, not a film about death or illness. Love is the essence of life; love touches all of our work. Love never leaves us. It clings to us, and we cling to it.
To speak of my first major role, filmed when I was 30, and this latest one, which will doubtless be my last great role, they have tremendous importance for me in my life. In acting, you draw so much on your private life. These are gifts from providence, gifts from heaven that touch me very deeply. I'm conscious of the continuity between the two films, and the subjects they touch on bring all of us on Earth together.
What was it like playing a role such as Anne at this point in your career and your life?
It seems to me being asked to play Anne came at the perfect time in my life. I'm 84 years old; it was an extraordinary miracle for me. I was ripe. It was the perfect time for me to become this character; it was the exact moment I could do it. I wasn't acting. I wasn't playing the part, that's the best way I can say it — I wasn't playing, I was being.
Did you anticipate the reaction to your performance?
I never try to anticipate. I never think of what lies ahead but simply of becoming the character I've been asked to play. But if it does happen that the film is well received, it's a great joy and a sense of sharing, of your life, of your project, of your concerns, with the audience.
You've worked with a number of the most celebrated directors in European cinema, such as Alain Resnais, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Jean-Pierre Melville. How did the experience of working with Michael Haneke compare?
The directors you mention are all very rigorous and precise in their work, and that suits me as an actress. I'm very rigorous and demanding toward myself. There's a sense of confidence and loyalty that arises from a sense of precision and those circumstances. There's an intensity on set, for me it's so important, this passion, because I'm only happy when I'm passionate about the work that I'm involved in.
You have to be demanding, because we're seeking to re-create life, seeking to re-create entire worlds. For me, the collaboration [with Haneke] was very simple, very easy and natural. We shared this sense of wanting to approach something as close as possible to perfection in this world.