Isabelle Adjani In Search of America

After a few forgettable roles in Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s, Isabelle Adjani is back in the United States. The French actress shines in Opening Night, an adaptation of John Cassavetes’s movie which premiered in Paris last May, at the FIAF in New York from September 12-14.
© Simon Gosselin

Isabelle Adjani’s whole life is reflected in Agnès, the role she played in Molière’s The School for Wives at the Comédie-Française at the age of 17. An archetype of naivety (“The kitten is dead”) followed by an emotionally-chaotic awakening of romantic sentiment (“The sweetness of which charms me […] and moves I know not what within me”). By losing this innocence, the character acquires the power to make men suffer. This woman who emerged from rocky beginnings with a multi-faceted identity as innocent victim, impulsive and clumsy, rarely manipulative yet often unhappy also embodied Jean Giraudoux’s Ondine at the Comédie-Française theater at the age of 18.

She was born to star in the classics and make a name for herself in high-brow theater and cinema. Adjani began forging a reputation after starring in the 1974 movie The Slap (and receiving one from her father, played by Lino Ventura). Camille Claudel, Queen Margot, and One Deadly Summer then made her the most brilliant, the most  sought after, and the most desirable actress of the 1980s and 1990s. However, this dyed-in-the-wool Française born in Paris wanted to try her hand at a career in America. She had dreamed about it, and yet it turned out to be a nightmare. This is when her troubles began; Diabolique with Sharon Stone and Ishtar with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman are very forgettable movies!

Isabelle Adjani and Sharon Stone in Diabolique (1996). © Gamma-Rapho

These flops were followed by romantic upsets, including a brief fling with Beatty and a stormy, passionate, six-year relationship with Daniel Day-Lewis. This tempestuous love story produced a son, but also resentment, screams, tears, and frustration. Twenty years after their separation, Adjani came to a cutting conclusion about the English-Irish actor: “Everything has been settled, but I am convinced that great passions never become great friendships.” Her amorous wanderings continued with musician Jean-Michel Jarre, who had become famous in the United States, followed by a celebrity neurosurgeon.

Despite a succession of mediocre roles, the actress’s longing for America continued. In 2014, Adjani was on stage at the Théâtre de Paris in the adaptation of Kinship, a play by Carey Perloff, the then-art director of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. But nothing went according to plan. Co-star Carmen Maura stormed out during a rehearsal, and the flamboyant, awkwardly-shaped set was never used. Adjani demanded that her coach at the time be the director and he was sent for just before the premiere, which was then postponed for two weeks. If that wasn’t enough, the costume designer was fired and the press officer was let go before being reinstated by the producers. The reviews were appalling.

“She remained dignified in spite of it all,” remembers one of her co-stars. “There was barely anyone in the theater; she could have stopped, but she saw it through to the end.” Unperturbed, Adjani, the daughter of Mohammed Chérif Adjani – an Algerian-born Frenchman who fought in World War II at the age of 16 – refused to buckle under the hail of criticism and returned to the fray.

Opening Night marked her comeback. In this theatrical adaptation of John Cassavetes’s movie, she plays Gena Rowlands’ role as Myrtle Gordon, a famous stage actress who witnesses the death of a hysterical admirer. This tragedy deeply distresses the character, awakening anxiety and doubts, and reopening old wounds. And yet even when backed into a corner, she manages to pull off one of the greatest feats of her career. The story seemed to double as a prophetic lucky charm. Whether in Namur, Belgium, Lyon, Paris, Marseille, Montpellier, or Angers, Adjani’s performance inspired emotion and applause. This was both a triumph and a relief; Isabelle was back, and once again ready to conquer America.

From September 12, she will be at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York playing an identical version of the Opening Night that won over French audiences last spring. The play will feature the same direction and cast, in the same language. Adjani has certainly taken a risk by performing John Cassavetes in French in New York City! But it must have been worth it to hear co-star Frédéric Pierrot, who plays Maurice, tell her a few home truths: “I am trying to tell you that you are a sensitive woman, whom I find very attractive, beyond all understanding. A woman whose lack of self-confidence astounds me.” The moral of the story? We occasionally need to take the time to accept who we are, and not who we think we are.

Opening Night

From September 12-14, 2019
FIAF, New York

Article published in the September 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.