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La Reine Adjani

Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H.What’s this? A post about someone other than Vivien Leigh or Laurence Olivier? Yes, you read that right. Whenever I’ve highlighted other celebrities on this site it’s usually because they were somehow related to the Oliviers. This post differs in that respect. Today I have decided to dedicate this space to someone completely unrelated to the subjects of this website, and, to top it all off, she’s a modern actress. Yet, as I will explain, she is fully deserving of the spotlight.

I’m talking about Isabelle Adjani, the two-time Oscar nominee and winner of the most Caesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for acting in cinema history. I first saw Isabelle on screen about three years ago when I watched Roman Polanski’s thriller The Tenant for the first time. But it wasn’t until last year when I wrote a paper about Werner Herzog’s remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent vampire classic Nosferatu for a film class that I really became aware of her. As Lucy Harker, her stunning beauty contrasted brilliantly with Klaus Kinski’s monstrous visage.

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, she was one of France’s biggest stars, working with many of the greatest directors of European cinema including Roman Polanski (The Tenant), Herzog (Nosferatu the Vampyre), Andrezj Zulawski (Possession), Francois Truffaut (L’Historie d’Adele H.) and Luc Besson (Subway, and the music video for her pop hit Pull Marine). She was renowned for a combination of looks and exceptional acting talent, and although now 55 and admittedly a fan of anti-aging remedies such as botox, she  beat out the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Ava Gardner, Catherine Deneuve and even Vivien Leigh to top an LA Times Magazine list of the “most beautiful women in film” earlier this year.

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Adjani as Adele Hugo in L’Historie d’Adele H.

I recently “rediscovered” Adjani in the 1975 costume drama/biopic L’Historie d’Adele H. (The Story of Adele H.) and was blown away by her performance (so much so that I reviewed the film for YAM Magazine). She plays Adele Hugo, youngest daughter of Les Miserables author Victor Hugo, whose obsessive, unrequited love for British soldier Albert Pinson drives her to madness. Only 20 when this film was made, she picked up an Oscar nomination that validated her promise as a rising talent (she lost out to Louise Fletcher for her chilling performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). As Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats aptly pointed out, it would have been easy for Adjani to make a name for herself based on looks alone, but instead of accepting a string of glamorous roles, she chose to broaden her horizons and play characters that offered her the chance to display her acting skills. Many of the women she portrays–Anna in Possession, Marguerite de Valois in La Reine Margot, Camille Claudel in Camille Claudel–combine enchanting beauty and sexuality with madness, and she holds nothing back. The results are often jarring and somewhat disturbing. You actually believe that she is being rather than acting and she projects a palpable intensity that makes it difficult to pay attention to anyone else sharing a scene with her.

Isabelle AdjaniIn many ways, Adjani reminds me very much of Vivien Leigh and that’s probably partly why I think she’s so amazing. In fact, we were having a discussion over at the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Facebook page about how if a biopic had been made about Vivien 30 years ago, she would have been a great choice to “step into” Scarlett O’Hara’s shoes. Born in France to a German mother and Algerian father, Isabelle Adjani definitely had the right look. She is also trilingual and has performed in French, German and English. Like Vivien, Adjani has refused to be typecast, and has interspersed her film career with performances on stage (including several plays at the Comedie Francais). Like Vivien, she had a face that was suitable for costume dramas and has starred in many period films. She even played Marguerite Gautier in a stage version of Alexandre Dumas fils’ Le Dame aux camélias. Behold, the gorgeousness!

Isabelle Adjani as Adele Hugo

Isabelle Adjani and Roman Polanski in The Tenant
Isabelle Adjani in The Tenant
Isabelle Adjani in Nosferatu

Isabelle Adjani as Emily Bronte

Isabelle Adjani

Isabelle Adjani in Possession

Isabelle Adjani as Camille Claudel

Isabelle Adjani in La Reine Margot

I would definitely recommend watching some of Isabelle Adjani’s films. She is truly a tour de force on screen and has quickly shot up to the top of my list of favorite modern actresses (of which there aren’t many).

Check out these clips if this post hasn’t quite persuaded you:

Isabelle Adjani as Adele Hugo in L’Historie d’Adele H.
Isabelle Adjani as Anna in Possession
Isabelle Adjani as Stella in The Tenant
Isabelle Adjani as Queen Margot in La Reine Margot

*Some screencaps by the Isabelle Adjani Blog | gif by rhera

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (14)

  1. Adjani’s portrayal of Adele Hugo is one of the greatest female performances ever seen on film. in my opinion. But I also think that no other director did for her what Truffaut did: It’s a pity they didn’t make any other picture together, because for all her beauty and talent, she never reached such heights again.

    1. I think she’s brilliant in every single thing I’ve seen her in, even if the film itself wasn’t much to write home about. Have you seen Possession? She’s so intense, creepy, amazing. She won the best actress award at Cannes for it.

      1. Of course she is brilliant, I’ve not denied her talent or her beauty but I do think that “L’histoire d’ Adele Hugo” is still her best picture to date and that the partnership of Truffaut directing and Adjani acting proved to be one ot the most precious material.

  2. actually she didn’t beat out vivien leigh on the 50 most beautiful women in film list. it’s listed in alphabetical order her last name begin with A so obviously she goes first

  3. Hi Kendra,
    Thank you for this post about Adjani… Being French myself, I followed her career, whether I wanted it or not, because her movies were very often in cinemas and TV. She also played in a lot of comedies, but one of her most celebrated movies is “l’été meurtrier”, where she appears overtly sexy and vulgar, in a complex melodramatic plot. It was an unusual part for her, and it has been very talked about.

    But what I wanted to say is that years ago (if I remember well, it was at the time when “Scarlett” by Alexandra Ripley was published) a famous French magazine made a photo session with Adjani, dressed as Scarlett, and the article stated that she would be perfect in the part if ever a sequel was to be filmed… Indeed, the pictures were gorgeous. The hairstyles and dresses, as well as the staging, were awesome, and Isabelle Adjani was really gorgeous… I certainly kept those pages, but I just can’t remember where they can be !

    I had completely forgot about that, but reading your post just reminded me of that article.

    (too bad now Adjani has that strange “egg-like” face, due as you said to botox or other things)


    1. Thanks for the great comment, Eric!

      I’d love to see those photos if you’re able to find them, they sound fascinating. I suppose that was around the time she made La Reine Margot, in which I thought she was amazingly beautiful (and nearly 40!). It really is sad about her look now–it’s sad a lot of former “most beautiful women” are now resorting to it, like Catherine Deneuve. I think Adjani’s co-star and peer Isabelle Hupert has aged rather gracefully

      1. I 100% agree with you Kendra !!
        Did you see a french movie called “Bon Voyage” by Jean-Paul Rappeneau ? It is quite recent and Adjani plays an actress during WW2, and especially at a time where people from the North of France fled their homes to go south, because of the German invasion… The way Adjani plays her character somehow reminded me of Vivien playing Scarlett… And the plot somehow reminded me GWTW (people fleeing their home because of an invader, and all the turmoil that follows).

    1. Yes, the second picture you posted was part of the article. But in the french magazine I had it was clearly connected to an article connecting Adjani to “Scarlett”… I’ll try to find it… But the magazine is certainly in my boxes in France… And I am in Montreal now 😉


  4. I agree with Rita in that Adjani never quite reached the heights or depth of her portrayal as Adele Hugo although she has appeared in some notable films. It is regrettable that you prefer her catastrophically grotesque plastic surgery and compare her looks to actresses such as Brigitte Bardot who has aged naturally. I have been following Adjani’s career since Adele H. was released and she had plastic surgery pretty early on (a couple of nose jobs) which is tragic considering she was a stunning beauty and the surgery changed her appearance. Begin with her earlier films and you will notice the change.

  5. Most of all ; watch ‘one deadly summer ‘ 1983 , her biggest box office success after which she pretty much stopped acting regularly although she was at the time the absolute number one at the box office and strangely refused all the scripts that were offered to her ( virtually anything that was written for an actress at the time , with parts that producers either offered to rewrite for an older actress if the role was for a twenty something or make younger if the part was for a forty year -old -woman, even Deneuve almost lost one of her big hits to Adjani who luckily turned it down ) . ‘Deadly summer’ ( in French ‘l’été meurtrier ‘ ) could almost be considered as her Blanche Dubois but with a sex-kitten streak absent from the Tennessee williams character ( I-e a psychotic woman with a hidden agenda coming to a village of unrefined people and seekin revenge on a mysterious past ).
    It was yet another césar award for isabelle and when broadcast on TV two years after its release ( and a record-breaking five millions and a half tickets sold and the number one spot at the box office in 83) , it enjoyed a smashing 65 % in the ratings! It’s obvious Adjani has connections with Leigh , prior to playing lady of the camellias in 2000 onstage at pretty much the same age that Leigh did, she was due to play it on screen ( I’d have loved a Leigh version too!) until the project, due to intrigues in the wings, was handed over to the other Isabelle ( Huppert) in a version that purported not to tell the story IN the book ( meaning Marguerite Gautier ) but that of the woman who inspired the book to Dumas Fils ( Alphonsine Plessis , buried in the Montmartre cemetery).Adjani , who was to play the heroine of the book , later got her revenge on Huppert when she managed to bring to screen her biography of sculptor Camille Claudel , hence blocking a parallel project for Huppert ! At the time , nothing could be refused to Adjani while huppert ‘s career was slumping in the mid -eighties. You might also be interested to learn that another project that adjani had in 1985 was to be reunited with the director who had launched her film carrer in 1974 , Claude Pinoteau , for a film adapatation of French Feminist Author Regine Desforges ‘ best selling novel ‘ La bicyclette bleue’ an epic love story set during WW II boasting a beautiful and ardent heroine trying hard to be reunited with her lover among a backdrop of war and uncertainties… Remind you of something…Well… It did Margaret Mitchell’s right holders who were quick to sue Desforges for plagiarism .The case dragged in court for years before they won ! The funny thing is that at least two years before that , having just discovered ‘Gone with the wind’ and become an ardent admirer of our Viv , a young school friend of mine who was also a fan of the film and had just read ‘ La bicyclette bleue’ ( which was the rage at the time) told me the book was a complete copycat !!! Adjani sure wanted a stint as Scarlett and was gutted because the film was put on hold indefinitely due to the trial before being cancelled ! Also Adjani claimed was offered ‘ Anna Karenina ‘ in two different versions , rejecting the Bernard Rose film of 1997 claiming she had just been offered a better version that didn’t get made. I always thought that this ans also a stage production of ” A streetcar named desire’ would have proved a perfect vehicle for her.Let’s not forget that at the age of seventeen , Adjani was considered the child prodigy of the national theater company ‘ La comédie Française’ where she put a definite stamp on the classical part of Agnes in Molière’s ‘L’école des femmes’ pretty much the way a Laurence Olivier had done with Hamlet and certainly the last French actress to have done so in the theater ( the reference still holds to this day, many actresses balking at the perspective of reprising a classical repertory role that Mademoiselle Adjani still owns).She also triumphed in gireaudoux ‘Ondine .We’re not talking about mere acting chops here though due to personal problems not unlike miss Leigh’s ( but not to the same extent) , Adjani ‘s legacy both onscreen and onstage ultimately leaves to be desired and everything that was expected from her in the period 1972-1985 didn’t quite come to pass, leaving her admirers like myself a little bit frustrated. For exemple , her comeback in theater in 1983 in Strindberg’s ‘ Miss Julie’ ( another possible mutual good part for both Leigh and Adjani!) ,right at the top of her game , after a nine year absence onstage and under the guidance of the director of her magnificent debuts at the comédie française, was cancelled after a few performances amid a flurry of speculations about bad vibes between her and her director! She claimed anemia and was hospitalized leading to accusations of lack of professionalism on the part of the theater management. It must be said that upon her return on stage in 2000 ( Lady of the camellias) after a seventeen- year absence, she was a magnificent master of her craft .
    I should know, I was there !
    Bertrand ( from France).

  6. Having just re-read my post, I offer an apology for the mistakes ( both spelling and punctuation) mostly due to quick typing. I hope the content will have, at least, been of any interest to your readers.
    In any case, your site is magnificent and a great tribute to that wonderful actress that Vivien Leigh was.
    Bertrand ( From France).

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