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One of the most dazzling screen performers of the late 20th century is also frequently one of its most overlooked. Isabelle Adjani never quite ‘cracked’ Hollywood – the assumed end-goal of any serious actor – and indeed some of her US films unambiguously (and in some cases, unfairly) tanked, such as Elaine May’s recently reclaimed Ishtar (1987) and Jeremiah S. Chechik’s less redeemable 1996 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 155 French classic Les diaboliques, the American version casting Adjani across from then-at-the-height-of-her-fame Sharon Stone.

But with a broader filmography of the calibre of Adjani’s, the cliché of ‘breaking into Hollywood’ seems almost too obvious; no one has won more Cesar awards for Best Actress even today, and when she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in François Truffaut;s The Story of Adele H., she was the youngest person at the time ever nominated for a Best Actress award. Adding to this the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneu she was awarded in 2010, one can’t help but wonder if she ever needed America at all.

Travelling between Sydney and Melbourne in early November, Australia’s Alliance Française Classic Film Festival in association with Studio Canal presents a long-overdue celebration of some of Adjani’s most unforgettable film screen performances. Curating such a program is no easy task; for literally decades, Adjani’s list of credits reads like a “greatest hits” of late 20th century European cinema. For every bona fide banger on the impressive Adjani retrospective program, it prompts memories of other films that equally warrant inclusion; Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre with Klaus Kinski and Claude Miller’s Deadly Circuit from 1993 (remade in 1999 in Stephen Elliott’s milqutoast reimagining with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd, Eye of the Beholder) merely scratches on the surface of these alternative possible additions.

This is no attack on the program’s curation, of course; in practical terms alone, screening all 30 films Adjani had made between since 1970 would be impossible. And, it’s worth noting, her career is hardly past tense, with notable recent additions including but not limited to Romain Gavras’s gleeful The World is Yours from 2018 or – in a more central (and another award-winning) role, in Jean-Paul Lilienfeld’s extraordinary Skirt Day from 2012.

While defining the precise aspect of Adjani’s craft that makes her such a compelling performer and all-round screen icon is surely impossible, that her most memorable performances rely as much on the nuance of her physical gestures and facial expressions as much as her spoken delivery. Adjani acts with her entire body; there is a wholistic element that sparks a magical connection with her audience that can be compared to few other screen greats before or since.

Just as importantly, however, is the often-overlooked aspect of just how hard she works. The concept of labor doesn’t quite fit into the glitz and glamour of the stereotypical allure of the actress-as-star, but Adjani’s commitment to her job are hard to miss in the films themselves. This is nowhere more visible than the famous subway scene in Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession where Adjani unleashes what remains one of the most physically and emotionally intense explosions of primal energy ever captured on film, by any actor of any gender. Entirely wordless, this scene has become symbolic of the film’s broader contemporary feminist appeal; Adjani captures in her performance the pure essence at the heart of just how angry rage of being a woman taken for granted and misunderstood can make us. In a career of seemingly never-ending highs, this film – and this scene – remain the benchmark of just why Adjani is a screen legend.

Possession was the only film on Britain’s notorious “video nasties” list to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival (Adjani for Best Actress, of course), but not her only rail transportation-related cult classic. In Luc Besson’s 1985 film Subway, she co-stars with Christophe Lambert whose character Fred finds himself caught up in the strange underground underworld that exists below the streets in the Paris Metro, their blossoming romance forming the core of one of the most zeitgeist-defining French films of the 1980s.

While less known, Adjani’s devastating performance in Jean Becker’s 1983 film One Deadly Summer remains one of her strongest and most complex performances that saw her receive the second of her many Best Actress César awards. The most beautiful girl in their small Southern French village, Adjani’s Eliane is the prized bride of goofy, love-struck Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon), but the perfect life he dreamed of with Eliane is far from what comes to fruition as a deep trauma resultant from an ugly family secret pushes her to the edge.

Further demonstrating her dramatic range, Adjani’s dramatic skills come to the fore in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1982 comedy All Fired Up in which she co-starred alongside French screen darling Yves Montand. Then, of course, are the big names; Truffaut’s close-to-perfect The Story of Adele H. stars Adjani in his portrait of the wife of the famed French novelist Victor Hugo.

Similarly based on another real-life woman, Bryon Nuytten’s Camille Claudel from 1988 is a gut-wrenching emotional journey into the life of a woman who was as much an oppressed artist herself as she was the muse of sculptor Auguste Rodin (played by Gérard Depardieu in one of his most objectively powerful performances, also). Winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot – with Adjani in the title role – again shows her particular flair for playing complex women from history, a strong illustration of Adjani’s unique approach to playing strong, sexual and fearless women.

The Alliance Française Classic Film Festival plays Sydney from 3 – 24 November and Melbourne from 10 – 24 November.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).