An ethereal beauty as well as one of the most formidable actresses of her generation, Isabelle Adjani won more Cesars - the French equivalent of the Oscar - than any other performer in history on the strength of her heart-rending performances in such acclaimed films as ""The Story of Adèle H. " (1975), "Camille Claudel" (1988) and "Queen Margot" (1994). In these and other pictures, Adjani struck deep into the passionate, conflicted cores of her heroines, fleshing out their desires and sadness in extraordinarily nuanced performances, which earned her the respect of the critical press around the globe. She was less successful in winning over other members of the media, due to her reluctance to participate in the glad-handing and posturing that accompanied film promotion, as well as her stands on racial discrimination against North African immigrants like her Algerian father. Though her output slowed in the new millennium, her 2009 Cesar win for "La journée de la jupe" showed that Adjani had lost none of her power to mesmerize audiences with the scope and breadth of her astonishing talents. She remained one of France's national treasures, an actress by which all others could measure their abilities, for nearly four decades.
Born Isabelle Yasmine Adjani on June 27, 1955 in Gennevilliers, a suburb of Paris, France, she was the daughter of Mohammed Cherif Adjani, an Algerian who fought for the French during World War II, and a German mother, Augusta. Fluent in both French and German, she became interested in performing before an audience after winning a school prize for recitation, and soon began appearing in amateur stage productions as a preteen. At 14, she made her screen debut in "Le petit bougnat" ("The Little Coal Man") (1970), and would divide her time over the next few years between minor features and her schooling. Three years later, Adjani joined the famed state theater Comédie-Française, where she drew critical praise for performances in classical works, most notably in Molière's "The School for Wives." She soon signed a 20-year contract with the theater, only to break it shortly thereafter to pursue a career in film.
Almost immediately, Adjani began to impress the international cinema circuit, winning both the prestigious Prix Suzanne Bianchetti for Most Promising Young Film Actress and a special David from the Academy of Italian Cinema for her turn as a rebellious teenager in "La Gifle" ("The Slap") (1974). She bested that triumph the following year as the tormented daughter of novelist Victor Hugo in "The Story of Adèle H." (1975), which earned her a second David, as well as Oscar and César nominations, among countless other laurels. The film's success cemented her in the minds of moviegoers as an emotionally fragile, tragic heroine, and she would play variations on that role throughout her career. In "The Tenant" (1976), she played a young woman deceived by an unstable obsessive (director Roman Polanski), while in André Téchiné's "Barocco" (1976) her turn as a rootless, amoral girlfriend who transformed her boyfriend's killer into the image of her lost love earned her a Cesar nomination. Adjani made her American film debut in Walter Hill's neo-noir "The Driver" (1978), which owed a considerable debt to the work of French director Jean-Pierre Melville's metaphysical crime pictures. The following year, she gave her only performance in German as the self-sacrificing Lucy Harker in Werner Herzog's chilly remake of "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979), then added another doomed character portrait, that of Emily Bronte, in Téchiné's "The Bronte Sisters" (1979), to her growing list of ill-fated heroines.
Adjani claimed her first Cesar for Andrzej Zulawski's alarming and surreal "Possession" (1981), in which she played a woman whose agonies over a failed marriage appear to manifest in outbursts of homicidal mania and monstrous prodigies. That same year, she appeared as a woman taken in by a British couple (Maggie Smith and Alan Bates) with unseemly designs on her in James Ivory's "Quartet" (1981). So impressed was the Cannes Film Festival jury that year that they gave her Best Actress awards for both films, but her relationship with the festival would sour with 1983's "One Deadly Summer," a thriller that cast her as a disturbed young woman on the hunt for the men who raped her mother. She claimed a second Cesar for her performance, but at Cannes that year, she refused to cooperate with the press, avoiding interviews and refusing to be photographed. For many, Adjani's behavior underscored her standing as a serious actress interested more in her craft that promotion, while others viewed her as spoiled and self-centered. She would continue to generate controversy with the press throughout the remainder of her career, most notably in her efforts to speak out against the anti-immigrant French National Front. The group launched a smear campaign in 1986 that claimed Adjani was dying from AIDS, which forced her to appear on national television to confirm her good health.
To the surprise of many, Adjani generated even more unwanted headlines by becoming involved with actor-director Warren Beatty in 1986, and concurrently appearing in his infamous box-office bomb "Ishtar" the following year. Their relationship soon dissolved, and she returned to France to earn her third Cesar for "Camille Claudel" (1988), a biopic about the French sculptress (Adjani) and her tumultuous life, as well as her relationship with the artist Auguste Rodin (Gerard Depardieu). The film also marked Adjani's debut as producer, but the accolades for her accomplishments were largely drowned out by the roar of the press over her acceptance speech, in which she read aloud from Salman Rushdie's then-notorious Satanic Verses.
In 1994, Adjani set the record for most Cesars won by a single actress with "Queen Margot," a biopic of the 16th century royal who became caught in a power play between Catholic and Protestant forces in France. Its international success once again boosted her profile on the global cinema circuit, and she returned to Hollywood for "Diabolique," a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzout's acclaimed thriller "Les Diaboliques" (1955). The film, which co-starred Sharon Stone as the mistress of a cruel teacher (Chazz Palmintieri) who teamed with his wife (Adjani) to plot his murder, was a dismal failure, and for a period, Adjani stepped away from moviemaking to concentrate on political causes, including racial prejudice against North African immigrants and Algerian rebel activities. In 1997, she returned briefly to public view as president of the 50th Cannes Film Festival. Adjani returned to films in 2002 with the period romance "Adolphe," which also featured a cameo by Gabriel-Kane Day-Lewis, her son from a relationship with actor Daniel Day-Lewis. In 2009, she broke a six-year absence from acting with "La journée de la jupe" ("Skirt Day"), a tense thriller about a teacher (Adjani) who took her combative students hostage. Her high-intensity performance won her a fifth Cesar, and preceded a period of increased appearances in features and television.
By Paul Gaita