Some Ways Of Looking At Isabelle Adjani
Beauty behind the madness
For most of her career, Isabelle Adjani’s roles have operated on a continuum. François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975), playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Hitchcock/Truffaut: Magnificient Obsessions programme August 21, was her sophomore effort on film, one that earned Adjani fawning reviews both at home and abroad for playing Victor Hugo’s lovestruck daughter. The film takes her across the globe, from Guernsey to Halifax to Barbados, as she pursues a man who doesn’t love her back. She is driven to madness because of it. Then 19, Adjani seemed to emerge from nowhere, at the centre of Truffaut's comeback. Critics found her presence unusually sensual, her understanding of madness keen for her young age. Add to this the fact that she shattered some glass ceilings — for a time, she reigned as the youngest Best Actress nominee in the history of the Oscars, bested only by Whale Rider’s Keisha-Castle Hughes in 2003. The performance was a harbinger of greater achievements to come, signaling a major talent. If she was this good on her first try, critics asked, what was she capable of becoming? To quote Pauline Kael, “You believe her capable of anything, because you can’t see yet what she is.”
The prophecy seemed a touch self-fulfilling. Like Adele, Adjani’s most famous characters fall on a spectrum of insanity, stifled by an inchoate obsession that with time reveals itself as mental illness. She has played a vengeful temptress in Jean Becker’s One Deadly Summer (1983), the scorned rival of Auguste Rodin in Camille Claudel (1988), bloodied Queen Margot of Valois in Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot (1994). Born in 1955 to an Algerian-Turkish father and white German mother, Adjani is the most decorated French actress of her generation. She has won a truckload of César Awards for Best Actress (five, more than any other actress), the Best Actress award at Cannes and has two Best Actress Oscar nominations to her name, one of the few performers to do so for multiple foreign language performances.
Yet, I’ve often found that Adjani possessed certain qualities that flummox the filmmakers, usually male, who direct her. They stare slack-jawed and agape at her beauty, seeming unsure of how to shape her skills. So many of her performances, particularly in Camille Claudel (1988), seemed self-flagellating and effort-strewn. I often wondered if her ardent champions were falling prey to the age-old convention of conflating the most acting with best. I felt exhausted for Adjani and the effort she was pouring into her roles.
Only now do I realize this no fault of the actress. Directors have often flinched in the face of her talents. Even those who coached her to her two most famous performances, Truffaut in Adele H. and Andrzej Żuławski in Possession.
First, a bit of history to contextualize the critical zealotry. 1975 was a pitifully barren year for the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards, with a lament-soaked New York Times article about the dearth of candidates to boot. It’s often a sign of dire times when the Academy, notoriously stingy about rewarding anyone but homespun talents, has to look beyond America’s borders for nominees. At a moment that had reduced critics to asking whether Marilyn Hassett could earn an Oscar for playing a paraplegic in the now deservedly-forgotten The Other Side of the Mountain (1975), 19-year-old Isabelle Adjani seemed that year’s only saving grace.
Backstage was a story that doesn’t often get told: the making of the film was, quite plainly, hell because of Truffaut’s advances towards Adjani. He cast her after finding her debut presence in Claude Pinoteau’s La Gifle (1984), as a daughter who wants to drop out of school and move in with her boyfriend, utterly enchanting. Once on the set of Adele, Truffaut tried to romance Adjani, as he did with so many other women he directed. Adjani refused. This created a tense atmosphere during production and it may account for the film’s curious sense of distance from Adele. Truffaut’s skeptics often comment that he approaches his characters with a remoteness. Here, he seems relentless in chasing what ails Adjani’s character, treating her as an enigma, without quite realizing that the endeavor is futile.
I revisit the untapped potential of a scene in which Truffaut’s camera inches towards Adjani as she gazes pathologically at a shrine of the man she’s in love with. (Think what Helga did for Arnold in Hey Arnold!) Adjani does not stare directly at the camera, but slightly outside its purview. She concentrates tension in her throat, as if holding back tears; she has a tremulous quality that Truffaut seems to be directing around, instead of capitalizing on. Truffaut's camera creeps up on her, inching towards her from the back, before shifting to an extreme close-up. Adjani’s visage — steely and guarded — never cracks. It’s as if Truffaut is simply witnessing something terrible happening to a dour, brooding girl far too young to burden such heartbreaks. The director clearly pities her, but does he empathize?
When I first saw Adele a few years ago on VHS, I expected to be bowled over by Adjani’s talents, yet I found the performance wanting. There is something perennially unknowable about Adjani, as if she is holding something back from us, erecting a barrier between herself and the director — and, by extension, the viewer. As the film ambles on, she grows jaundiced, her body concave. Truffaut ends with closing credits that simply roll over Adjani’s face, static in its purity. The shot is affecting because of its stark contrast. Moments ago, we saw Adele reduced to a whimpering banshee, her face caked in dirt as she saunters past her lover, gaze unwavering as she is unable to even register his existence — the very reason that she has found herself in Barbados. She is beyond help. In those closing credits, Truffaut offers us an image of chastity that he has spent the film entirety corrupting.
Though she lost the Oscar that year to Louise Fletcher for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Adjani trudged along in her career. She parlayed Adele H.’s success into an international stardom, wherein she collaborated with directors outside of France — Polanski in The Tenant (1976), Walter Hill in The Driver (1978), Werner Herzog in Nosferatu (1979). In this period, Adjani was ascendant.
Perhaps the most famous of these collaborations is with Żuławski, who directed her in Possession. Mired in a real-life divorce, Żuławski crafted Possession (shot in 1981) as an oblique parable about two lovers in a quarrel. Time has been kind to the film, which was gravely misunderstood during its release. Anna, played by Adjani, tells her husband (Sam Neill) that she has a paramour and is divorcing him, but it’s the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What follows is a manic and maddening upending of order. In the film’s most famous scene, Adjani is reduced to a convulsing, hapless gorgon laughing manically through a miscarriage. By the end, she is sitting in a puddle of gook that has emerged from her body — only to walk away from the mess shortly thereafter, as if nothing has transpired.
Again, this performance was met with laurels — a Cannes Best Actress win (which she also got for Merchant-Ivory’s Quartet) and her first César. Cinephiles speak of this performance in the same way they speak of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974): an actress offering herself to her craft and holding nothing back.
However, it demands more stringent examination — who is orchestrating the suffering here? If Adjani’s Adele was mutedly inexpressive, Anna in Possession hovers towards the opposite pole, for her madness is verbose. Żuławski tests Adjani’s limits, and, in response, she exposes herself as limitless. This is evident in the screaming matches that dissolve into fistfights between Adjani and Sam Neill, who plays her husband. Eyes bloodshot, Adjani shifts from a frown to a smirk and back again before her husband punches her and she growls back at him, venomously.
Adjani suffered mentally as a casualty of Possession, telling one French Magazine that the role gave her something akin to PTSD. A more macabre rumour took hold that she attempted suicide as a result of the film. Watching Possession reminds me of another 1981 film, in which a director subjected his actress to such extremities — Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981). That movie earned Faye Dunaway some of the best notices of her career and also seemed to torpedo it. Today, she is a punchline in most circles. Later Dunaway would state that she regretted that she didn’t have a director who could have coached her into a more disciplined performance, telling her when to hold back or tone it down. The performance was so rash, confessional and tormented that you wondered what demons of her own Dunaway let loose. Struggling to recover from a role like Joan Crawford, today she remains staunch in her refusal to speak about it.
In Dunaway’s story, I am reminded that the onus of a performance of such intensity falls squarely upon the actor. The very mercurial qualities Adjani had displayed in Truffaut’s film — and spent years finessing technically in films like Żuławski’s — became a liability. Her grand dramatics had hollowed out by the mid-90s, when she found herself continually cast in variations of the same role. She retreated from the public eye, at least in films, re-emerging only in the late aughts when she won her fifth, and most recent, César for the French TV movie Skirt Day (2009).
Here, Adjani played a schoolteacher who takes her students — mostly North African, like her, and poor — hostage. The movie was middling, but her performance was majestic. Her face had softened with age and gained new expressive fervor that it didn’t have before. While Adjani looked distraught throughout the film, her inaccessibility seemed perfect for a role of a woman whose senses had abandoned her in middle age. It’s her most marvelous performance, perhaps because she’d reached an age where men were no longer obsessed with her beauty and did not couch her in vanity. This was the first time a director had let her image as French cinema’s most operatic dame fall. Director Jean-Paul Lilienfeld tapped directly into the tension other filmmakers had left unexposed.
I suspect Adjani will be remembered for playing variations of the same role that made her famous. A woman whose sanity comes under threat and has her enact such unfurlings with Gallic intensity. These roles have summarily defined Adjani, but to what end? Truffaut and Żuławski are in love with a woman they don’t necessarily understand. Obsessed with breaking Isabelle Adjani’s heart, they love to see her suffer.