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Pretty When You Cry: Isabelle Adjani's Tragic Heroines

A retrospective at the French Institute Alliance Français in New York spotlights the remarkable talent of French actress Isabelle Adjani.
Abbey Bender
Camille Claudel
It seems impossible to talk about Isabelle Adjani without mentioning her eyes. Round, blue, and prone to tears, Adjani’s eyes are filled with a heartbreaking expressiveness reminiscent of the actresses of the silent film era. A series collecting some of Adjani’s most memorable performances, now playing at New York’s French Institute Alliance Française, is titled (obviously) “Magnetic Gaze.” The 10-film series offers a sampling of her work, from her breakthrough as the title character in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H. (1975), a haunting portrait of l’amour fou, to her most recent role in—of all things—an action comedy, Romain Gavras’s The World is Yours (2018). Adjani is extra. She works a close-up with an intensity few actresses can surpass. When she tears up, so do we.
While “Magnetic Gaze” is missing some canonical Adjani films (among them Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Walter Hill’s The Driver, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre) the collection here shows the actress at her most emotionally volatile. Adjani was just 19 when she starred as Adèle, the daughter of French literary icon Victor Hugo, in The Story of Adèle H. Her performance serves as a kind of mission statement for her whole career: from a young age, she excelled at playing the tragic heroine. Adèle H. is more than just a sob story, though. As Adèle, an obsessive diarist who spends her nights sitting by candlelight pining for a man who doesn’t love her back, Adjani brings an emotional nakedness and interiority. We spend so much time inside her head—hearing her innermost desires, seeing her forlorn face—that it feels we’ve no choice but to empathize with her, even if she could be brushed off as pitiful at best or crazy at worst. She is both unbearably vulnerable and scarily devoted, and Truffaut, who once described the film as a “90-minute close-up,” has no interest in sugarcoating his protagonist’s pain. While Adèle is, like many Adjani characters, a woman careening into pitch-black emotional waters, the actress maintains a sense of internal control.
Adjani is a perfect fit for period pieces. Her soft features—doe eyes, delicate nose, full lips—have an unambiguous beauty that translates easily into any era. Half the films in the French Institute series take place in the past, and period roles are generally the ones for which the actress has been most acclaimed. Period pieces can often be too staid, but Adjani inevitably brings a compelling combination of fragility and hot-bloodedness. As the title character in Bruno Nuytten’s Camille Claudel (1988), Adjani is something of a cosmic sister to Adèle H. Camille Claudel tells the too-familiar story of a woman genius undervalued in her time. Acting alongside another icon of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu as the surly sculptor Rodin, Adjani plays Camille as a woman both gifted and doomed. Camille’s gifts for sculpture become subsumed by her affair with Rodin and the better-known sculptor’s brutish behavior, but the film makes us privy to the female protagonist’s tempestuous inner life. The scenes of her sculpting are jarring in their physicality. She digs her hands into clay and chips ferociously at blocks of marble, making us see the hard labor that goes into her art—labor that isn’t usually taken quite as seriously when done by an attractive young woman, especially during the film’s 19th century timeframe.
Many of Adjani’s most famous movies feature a scene in which her character’s emotions become too much to bear. Late in Camille Claudel, the artist destroys her work. It’s hard to watch, and the film gives us no reprieve, with her ending up institutionalized. When she throws her large, boldly rendered sculpture of a foot into the water, we feel its weight. Camille’s studio and Adèle’s desk are sites of obsessive dedication that bubbles over into madness. Both Camille and Adèle end up institutionalized, and Adjani makes both of these historical women something more than just “crazy.” Adèle’s diary is her lifeline, and it hurts to watch Rodin treat Camille so badly, when the two figures are at a comparable artistic level. In both of these historical dramas, creativity is inextricably bound to darkness. When Camille says, “I’m not very cheerful,” it may just be the biggest understatement of Adjani’s career.
To call Adjani a goth icon may sound glib, but it’s undeniably true. In one of Camille Claudel’s most memorable moments, she puts on a mask of makeup—kohl-rimmed eyes, blood-red lips—and makes a scene at an exhibition of her work. In another one of her period roles, as the lead in Patrice Chéreau’s deliriously luscious tale of 16th-century royalty Queen Margot (1994), Adjani, making a sexual proposition, speaks a line of dramatic French fatalism so bold as to be funny: “I want to see the image of my death in my pleasure.” Queen Margot is an epic of spilled guts, poisonings, and heaving bosoms. When Margot wears a white dress that becomes elaborately covered in blood (long story), it looks like the highest of haute couture. The film ends with her holding a severed head. Every shot of Adjani in Queen Margot could go on a goth girl’s mood board. The majority of her most famous roles feature at least one scene in which her blue eyes shimmer with tears. There’s something meme-like about these moments, which taken out of context can still instantly be recognized as signifiers of the deepest depression. In Andrzej Żuławski’s cult classic Possession (1981), Adjani has a violent freak-out of a miscarriage in a subway station—the scene of oozing and screaming is the terrifying, over-the-top genre version of the actress’s signature meltdown. It’s a testament to Adjani’s fearlessness as a performer that Possession, filled with body horror and sexual oddities, can be looked at as just another page in her catalog of troubled women.
It’s easy to romanticize the figure of the French actress, but Adjani’s career has been defined by making her Snow White-like beauty a thin veil for genuine emotional weirdness. Her onscreen cries (and it’s important to emphasize onscreen here, as her recent performance onstage in an adaptation of John Cassavetes’s Opening Night unfortunately lacked her usual depth) seem rooted deep in the psyche. Her roles are so often tragic that their exaggerated darkness can almost be perversely funny, and her outbursts can be devastating or borderline orgasmic or sometimes both. She shows us that characters that need to be protected and characters to be feared are often two sides of the same coin. During a climactic argument in Camille Claudel, Rodin shouts, “You search for pain! You get drunk on pain!” To a viewer, this statement isn’t quite an insult. Watching this uncompromising actress with an unforgettably expressive visage get drunk on pain is a perverse pleasure.
"Magnetic Gaze: Isabelle Adjani on Screen" runs September 10 – October 29, 2019 at the French Institute Alliance Français in New York.

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Isabelle AdjaniFrancois TruffautBruno NuyttenPatrice ChéreauAndrzej Żuławski
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