“Truffaut had to have me, had to monopolise me. There was something instinctual about his approach.”
rather, in love with his idea of me and his intention to film me. He had to have me, had to monopolise me. He could have waited. There was something instinctual about his approach that I wasn’t capable of analysing as such at the time, I was far too young. I ended up by giving in, as if he was abducting me. It’s strange, when I think about it. My father literally carried off my mother. Truffaut must have been one of the abductions of my own life. The Story of Adèle H. was a wonderful gift from him to me. When I come across sentences in his diaries, where he writes things like “I’d like to film her even on Sundays, France is too small for her”, I’m devastated. I say to myself, my God, why has he gone, too? He would have helped me in this maze.
Another man gone who didn’t save you. VH
Yes, that’s true, what you say. Which goes to show that IA the other person, when they really listen to you, like you are doing, they hear what you yourself don’t know you’re saying. You’re right — it’s tragic, isn’t it (!laughs!) Of course, we would have made another film together.
The general public often associates you with the passionate, tempestuous, VH romantic heroines you play. Sometimes to the point of madness. Yes, that’s true, and that has got me into a lot of misunIA derstandings. How often have I wanted to say to people “Have you gone mad? Just because you acted in a film called Possession doesn’t mean you’re possessed.”
Do you think that the roles an actor takes have an impact on their psyche? VH
There are roles that have been a transitional object (#a IA sort of safety blanket#), in the noble sense of the word. Other characters are like oracles, premonitions, or reminiscences. It was recently discovered that DNA is marked by the scars of transgenerational trauma. Fact. It’s a special gene that contains information related to the life of an ancestor which is never transmitted directly from parent to child, but skips generations. And it’s now possible to de–programme the cellular memory — in other words to remove a story that isn’t yours from your DNA. And I wonder if, in the present time of an actor’s life, information isn’t manufactured that doesn’t belong to her real history but to her fictional past, and if it doesn’t resonate with what she really experiences. After all, the psyche, your cells, don’t know that you’re only acting unhappy, so you could imagine that the negative information you generate is processed and integrated as if it were the real thing. Putting yourself in danger takes place in a closed circuit. Haven’t some actors begun to go downhill because of that permeability? Perhaps instinctively, it’s one of the reasons that have kept me out of the profession. I remember that when I was living with Daniel Day–Lewis, he turned down parts in certain films, Philadelphia, in particular. He said to himself: “If I do Philadelphia, I could die.” Said like that, it smacks of a very romantic statement, but it was thought out in a very measured way. He said to himself, in view of the way he works (#“I don’t act, I become”#), that it could do him a lot of harm and that he wouldn’t survive.
VH You are very similar to Daniel Day–Lewis in your total involvement in the characters you choose to play, and also in the rarity of your appearances and signature discretion. Yes, bizarrely. But Daniel is more fragile and the same IA time stronger than I am because he has been totally able to circumvent his fragility. He has surrounded himself with superb directors in order to channel what could amount to an imbalance in his life in an exciting, artistic manner. He has managed to be the agent of his own difficulty. Which didn’t stop me being afraid for him, often. He goes further out on the limb than anyone I know. If he has to adopt an accent for a film, he talks to you in that accent. He never drops it for a second. At the same time, all that operates in a highly structured framework organised around priorities — the sort of thing English–speaking actors do so well. They aren’t mired in France’s post–New Wave mess, where there’s all sorts of confusion. At the end of the day, to find yourself here, you have to be either ultra–structured or megalomaniac, or have bags of poise and self–confidence, which help you to fall on your feet in the right place. Take Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, for instance. I find the way she has taken herself in hand absolutely remarkable. Her films and what she says about the actor’s state resonate really powerfully with me. She doesn’t know how much I admire her. After that, when you’re talking about rarity and leveraging it, it’s probably a lot easier for Daniel. Scooping up three Oscars and working with the greatest film makers tempers the question of whether this profession is really worth ruining yourself for.
What’s your view of Isabelle Adjani the actress? VH
I know what I can do, what I haven’t done yet, IA and the things I’ve done that I’m not proud of. I’m pretty uncompromising when I look at myself. I’m uncompromising, but I can also look at myself in the particular context of a film. That’s why I like to go in the editing suite. I can’t restrict myself to simply acting. And because by definition I have a problem with obedience, things can get complicated. I’m in the habit of saying “I have to work with someone, not for them”. Unless I find myself face to face with a great director, of course. In that case, there’s no way you can challenge a request or a creative requirement, not even for a minute.
When “Adolphe” was released, its director Benoît Jacquot said of you: VH “Isabelle doesn’t have talent, she has genius. Something impalpable and singular, something incomparable, which appeared fully–formed, immediately.” That’s called an aura and it inflames passions. Are you aware of that? Benoît is so generous when he talks about an acIA tress. That passion thing — I experienced it very early on. When I left the Comédie Française, theatregoers came to see me to tell me off and lecture me. As if I was betraying them, abandoning them. There were also weird things like anonymous letters. I wasn’t prepared for it. I didn’t have the codes, and I wasn’t sheltered in the family circle. If I had been born into a family of psychoanalysts or therapists, perhaps I’d have been better able to deal with it. But I’ve never felt secure — it goes back to my childhood. Because of that, it was a double ordeal, and the suffering was double, too. I did what I could, but I wasn’t always even up to that.
“The gift of destiny is anything
but a gift.”
The list of films you turned down makes edifying reading: “That Obscure Object of Desire” by Luis Buñuel, “Loulou” by Maurice Pialat, “Rendez– vous” by André Téchiné, “The Piano” by Jane Campion. Any regrets? You don’t judge it like that. Obviously, if I drew up IA the list, starting with That Obscure Object of Desire and ending it with I don’t know which American film, it looks like an aberration. Jeff Berg, one of the biggest American agents, who runs ICM, used to say you could organise a festival of the films I’d turned down and that if I hadn’t become the biggest star, it was because I hadn’t yet decided to be that star. I refused the role deep down, that’s all. At the same time, when I read the biographies of certain American stars, I tell myself that I’m not the only one. But perhaps I do take the top prize. Regrets? My only choice is to kill them off with the grace of an angel and the agility of a devil!
Is it true that you turned Buñuel down because you refused to do VH
Yes, I waited until I made One Deadly Summer to decide IA that I had a body and was entitled to make it exist on–screen. When I did it, my father was still alive and I was very afraid of the way he would react. It bothered me enormously. And yet, I was 27 years old. But in the end, he died before the film was released.
Tell me about your father. VH
The First Man. Very handsome. He took me to see films IA starring Paul Newman because he looked like him. It was a passionate father–daughter relationship. In fact, I’ve made a lot of films where the dialectic nucleus is the father–daughter relationship. The Story of Adèle H., The Slap, All Fired Up, One Deadly Summer, and so on. My father was a deeply unhappy person, an autodidact with a genuine level of culture, when you think of the childhood he had had, thrown onto the streets when he was 14. He wanted to study to be a doctor but he found himself in an emigration situation reduced to the lowest common denominator. It was crushing. The main thing was to avoid being noticed, to make yourself invisible, almost bury yourself. And then there was a lot of trauma, things I don’t know about but which I knew were a terrible legacy. Not to mention zero resilience. Unfortunately the relationship put me in a muddle very early on. A fear settled inside me and I wasn’t able to grow up straight. I desperately wanted to show him I loved him so that I could force him to tell me he loved me back, so that we could emerge from this toxic situation that did a lot of damage to me and which would have caused me a great deal more if I hadn’t been able to escape by becoming an actress. That was what my dithering cost me before going into psychoanalysis. On the other hand, it was what destroyed my brother, in a far more direct manner. He was simultaneously the father you love and the one you weren’t able to save. And who we weren’t able to save from what he inflicted on us.
Françoise Sagan said of your face that “it bears the hallmark VH
of the irreparable”. What does that mean for you?
It’s extremely elegant, but at the same time it’s so final. It’s IA always the same. It means accepting that stuff happens to you, as if it was predestined. The gift of destiny is anything but a gift. Yes, my destiny exists, and perhaps I’ve ill– treated it. I took that for freedom, but it’s bad freedom to ignore your destiny because you shouldn’t take liberties with your destiny. Not accepting it completely means setting yourself up for some nasty surprises. I must have upset something sacred: through carelessness, through fear. There’s nothing worse in this world than fear. It fucks you up.
And yet, in your artistic choices, and in some of your political commitVH ments, not to mention your reading from Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in the midst of a fatwa when you were collecting a César award for Camille Claudel, you’ve undoubtedly shown a lot of courage. When I read that excerpt, I wasn’t aware of a sense of IA courage, there weren’t any religious fanatics waiting for me on the street corner to kill me, so let’s not exaggerate. There’s still no fatwa in view ("laughs") . If I’m sometimes courageous, it’s for others, not for myself. I’ve never felt secure about my right to exist, to think. There again, it goes back to my early childhood. I’ve always been terrified about putting myself forward. So when you suddenly find yourself important in other people’s eyes, through their voting for you or the care they take of your existence, that’s on a direct collision course with your own sense of importance, since people at home have also explained to me that I wasn’t — important. You can be reassured by awards, or praise, but if you aren’t reassured deep down, the snare will come back to trip you up. It was explosive.
They say that it was precisely because he saw you reading from “The VH Satanic Verses” during the Césars ceremony that Daniel Day–Lewis decided he wanted to meet you. Camille Claudel was being premièred in London and IA Daniel knew Salman Rushdie. It’s all very well being an actor or an actress, but sometimes we discover ourselves through the media and we feel a sort of wonder when someone comes up to us and starts talking about a film. Something like that happened for him at that precise moment. He wanted to meet me. I went to London to promote the film and when I arrived in my room at Claridges, I found a note saying “Welcome to this miserable country”, with his phone number. I called him, telling myself: “we have to behave like the colleagues we are”. We hooked up in Paris. It was like being struck by lightning. Lightning finally stuck'… ("laughs")
“I waited until I made One Deadly Summer to decide
that I had a body and was entitled to make it exist
And did you get to meet Salman Rushdie?
VH He sent me some messages, and asked if we could IA meet up, but it never happened. Another missed rendezvous. It happens all the time to me, as if everything could be indefinitely postponed. I think I’m daunted at the idea of meeting people!…
Are you afraid of disappointing them? VH
There must be something like that. Or else it’s me IA who’s worried they’ll disappoint me. I’ve been betrayed so often that I can’t do that sort of thing easily any more. You know, I think this is going to be the most demoralising interview of the year (!laughs!).
Brando wanted to meet you, too. VH
Yes, when I went to the United States for the preIA miere of The Story of Adèle H., and the Oscar nomination. It was really very strange. There was Christian Marquand, Nadine Trintignant’s brother, in this huge house full of small automata. It was really tacky and sleazy. And Brando was there — a legend in all his glory, with all that insufferable side of being a legend. It was borderline immaturity. I was fascinated and petrified at the same time. Both he and Bardot had been pulverised in their identities by what they had been made to become. Absolute legends. It’s a kind of curse. Even if it means existing for all time and being the stuff of dreams for people, should it be necessary to pay that sacrificial tribute? For me, these are lives that should be in the legendary cruelty hall of fame.
How can you be charmed? VH
(!Long silence.!) I love being surprised by a way of thinkIA ing that isn’t my own. I don’t mean knowledge or culture. I had experienced that with Sagan. I said to myself: “I would never have thought of thinking like that.” Even Bardot had that. A way of reasoning and ranting that is hers alone and which I find magnificent precisely because it’s uniquely hers. It’s self–evident, at the same time as it’s totally iconoclastic, bold and singular. There’s also Pierre Rabhi, the philosopher–farmer. You listen to him and you say to yourself, that that’s how it is and that’s how we have to reinvent the world. He’s someone who suddenly breaks the mould of uniformity and standardisation. Total admiration.
What’s the best compliment anyone has ever paid you? VH
You have changed my life (!laughs!). On a more sober IA note, it could be “Thanks to you I’ve become a sculptress”, or “Thanks to you I’ve had the courage to!…”. Intervening in people’s lives in a positive way. On the other hand, a “Thanks to you, I became an actress” really depresses me — and I’m
IA only half–joking.
If you had to choose just one scene from all the films you’ve made, VH which would you choose? The hysteria scene in the Metro in Possession. And God IA IA knows how I steer clear of the memory of that film. I could only have made it at the time I made it. I can’t say I like that scene. I don’t know what it is!… I don’t know what I was able to deliver myself of there, at a time when I was far more introverted than I am today. I won a César and a Best Actress award at Cannes for Possession, so I can’t not say thank you. But Zulawski!… what an introduction to torture! He explained to me that his ruthlessness protected. You can only impose
that sort of submission on young actresses who are ready to go all the way, because you have to gauge what they are capable of giving and proving it at the same time. That’s an illusion, but you only discover that later. Or else you work with an actress like Romy Schneider, literally lost in her life. At that point, you have a target, a target that you’re going to transfigure. And suck the lifeblood out of. It took an awful lot out of me to go there, just as some scenes in One Deadly Summer took an awful lot out of me. In fact, I was scared of making that film; and there again, as with Possession, it was thanks to Bruno Nuytten, who I had been living with since Barocco, that I did it. I felt I wasn’t pretty enough and I didn’t want to take my clothes off. He said something like “Listen: it’s simple. If you don’t do it, I’ll never speak to you again.” How about that?
And you wouldn’t have done VH it? No. I turned Jean Becker IA down, first off, even though the producers were offering me a small fortune, simply because it was unthinkable for me to show my body. When I came back, I was ready to go for it, even though my fee had more than halved. But I didn’t really care. I knew what I could do artistically, in emotional terms, with the character, some of whose traits I shared. I remember a scene in the barn, where I had to climb down a ladder, naked, wearing high heels. Jean Becker suggested I put on a shirt. I looked at him and said: “But what you’re asking me to do is terrible — we’ll be betraying Japrisot. If I do that, that’s it for the character, that’s it for the novel, that’s it for the film, and that’s it for me.” He was so kind — he wanted to respect my modesty, but that was completely out of the question. The same with that scene where I’m supposed to take a pee outside. I told him I would do it in the nude because that’s how it was written. There was no running away any more. That was it. I’d already run away.
One last question: can you sum up Isabelle Adjani in three positive VH words? Idealistic, even if I think that it’s a mug’s game. RebelIA lious, but that goes with the idealism. And completely human. In your generosity and in the way you give as much importance to others as you give to yourself. For better or worse. So, honest, too. But that’s four words.
I don’t think that’s a problem. VH But it is a problem: I don’t like the number four — it’s the number of death for the Japanese. And I love Japan. We have to find a fifth word. Any ideas?
What would you say to “passionate”? VH Yes, well spotted (!laughs!).
“Both Brando and Bardot had been pulverised in their identities by what they had been made to become. Absolute legends.”
KINSHIP, by Carey Perloff. Directed by Julien Collet Vlaneck,
with Isabelle Adjani, Carmen Maura and Niels Schneider, premieres at the Théâtre de Paris on