5. Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (2012)
Michael Haneke’s surprising Oscar hit, Amour, made Emmanuelle Riva into the oldest ever nominee in the acting categories, and a lot of people would argue that she should have won instead of Jennifer Lawrence. Riva is a living legend of French cinema, especially for her unforgettable role in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), so to see her as a dementia-stricken retired music teacher cared for by her increasingly desperate husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) was a shock to some viewers.
As Anne, Riva unravels physically and psychologically in front of the viewer, and Haneke’s stark contrast and unforgiving cynicism makes it almost unbearable to stick with her till the end. It’s a courageous and fundamental piece of cinema acted to perfection by one of the greatest and most underestimated performers in French cinema.
4. Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station (1998)
Fernanda Montenegro should absolutely have won the Best Actress Oscar in 1999. I don’t say that only because I’m Brazilian, but because there simply wasn’t a better performance in the running. At 70 years old, Montenegro had been a dominant presence on Brazilian screens for four decades when she finally got Oscar recognition – as an elderly lady taking a young boy in a journey to meet his long-lost father, she shines in a way that’s typical to those who’ve been watching her closely for so long.
Her careful character construction, focused sensibility and unrelenting charisma even in the most uninviting of roles make her one of the greats, and Central Station showcases that better than most of the roles she routinely gets. It’s a shame Gwyneth Paltrow got in her way.
3. Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978)
Autumn Sonata was the last of Ingrid Bergman’s seven Oscar nominations, coming only three years before her death. It’s also perhaps the role that took the most advantage of the movie icon’s aging sensibility and beauty, and her only performance in Swedish to gain Oscar attention. Ingmar Bergman casts her against Liv Ullmann as a strict pianist who visits her eldest daughter after years of estrangement.
It’s one of the Swedish director’s most poignant domestic, dialogue-based dramas, and there’s a quiet beauty and melancholy to it that posits it as one of his most accessible too. In her understated, beautiful turn, Ingrid Bergman transforms a weighty role in something believable and engaging, an intelligent reflection on past mistakes and the way to fix them.
2. Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H. (1974)
One of the best French actresses of her time or any time, honestly, Isabelle Adjani is rarely seen onscreen nowadays, so it’s high time we rediscover her greatest works. Chief among them is François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., a biography based upon the diaries of Adele Hugo herself. The second daughter of Les Misérables’ author Victor Hugo, she traveled away from her country and family to chase an unrequited love and obsession with Lt. Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson).
Truffaut’s film is a complicated masterpiece, fascinated by its subject as much as she is obsessed with the object of her affection. It’s a story of powerful allure, and Adjani’s performance is brilliantly transparent while not overplaying any of the core themes of the film.
1. Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007)
Marion Cotillard is one of the finest actresses of her generation, and she’s been so for a while in French cinema, but the world took notice when her whirlwind performance in La Vie en Rose earned her a well-deserved Oscar. Lip-syncing perfectly to the French diva’s songs, Cotillard embodied both the fragility and the grandiosity of Edith Piaf, the kind of transformative performance the Academy really likes to reward.
The quality of her work here, however, transcends physical and technical accomplishments, as she displays true understanding and concise expression of Piaf’s tormented soul and inspiration for her heartbreaking music. It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration saying that she brought a new and renewed interest and understanding to Piaf’s work with her performance.