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So Nice, She's Been Nominated Twice: Isabelle Adjani

abstew here. With her second nomination for Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard joins a small but prestigious group of actresses that received both their Best Actress nominations for foreign language performances. We previously discussed Sophia Loren and Liv Ullmann so let's close out the series with French cinematic royalty... 

Isabelle Adjani
after the jump 

Best Actress 1975 nominee: The Story of Adèle H. (dir. François Truffaut) Winner: Louise Fletcher One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Other nominees: Ann-Margret Tommy, Glenda Jackson Hedda, Carol Kane Hester Street

Best Actress 1989 nominee: Camille Claudel (dir. Bruno Nuytten) Winner: Jessica Tandy Driving Miss Daisy Other nominees: Pauline Collins Shirley Valentine, Jessica Lange Music Box, Michelle Pfeiffer The Fabulous Baker Boys

It is perhaps no surprise that of the 19 foreign language performances nominated for Best Actress, 8 of them have been for performances in French. France has had more films nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar than any other country (although it is two behind Italy for most wins in the category). And half of those French Best Actress nominations consist of double nominations by two actresses, Marion Cotillard and Isabelle Adjani.

When Adjani received her first Best Actress nomination for playing Victor Hugo's daughter, who forms an obsessive and delusional attachment to a former love, in The Story of Adèle H. at the age of 20, she became the youngest Best Actress nominee at that time. She held on to that title for almost 30 years, until Keisha Castle-Hughes in 2003 for Whale Rider. Working with the celebrated French director Truffaut, who worked on this film version of Adèle Hugo for almost 6 years, he has stated that there was simply no other actress that could have played the character like Adjani.

It's a fascinating performance, made even more interesting knowing that the events of the film and the characters were real. Victor Hugo's youngest daughter met a British army officer while living with her family in exile. After she refused his offer of marriage, she become fixated on winning him back, despite his eventual indifference toward her. When he was transferred to Halifax, Nova Scotia, she followed him across the ocean to be with him. Even following him to Barbados, where she finally lost her mind, wondering the streets in rags. She was eventually reunited with her father and lived the rest of her life in an insane asylum. Adèle kept a journal which she wrote in a secret language, scrambling words she felt were too intimate for others. In 1969, an American scholar had successfully encrypted Adèle's writings and Truffaut, using her own words, became infatuated with bringing her story to life.

Despite only being 19 at the time of filming, Adjani is remarkably poised, her assured performance belying her young age. She had been working as a classical actress in France's prestigious Comédie-Française when Truffaut cast her. And her classical training lent itself well to Adèle, whose theatricality, whether reciting her journal entries aloud before a mirror or dressing up in menswear to spy on her unrequited love, gives the girl's tragedy a romantic nobility. Adjani, wanting to capture the fragile and precarious nature of Adèle and her rapid loss of reality, would scream herself hoarse in the shower the night before filming, the actress' commitment to the role almost as intense as Adèle's love for her lost officer.

The year before Ullmann and Barrault were both nominated for foreign language performances, Carol Kane's performance almost entirely in Yiddish for Hester Street joined Adjani's French performance - making that two years in a row that two of the 5 nominated actresses were for foreign language performances. But both women lost to Louise Fletcher's iron-jawed Nurse Ratched in that year's Best Picture winner. Although Fletcher gives a brief but memorable performance (and perhaps should have won in supporting), Adjani's work as Adèle Hugo is haunting and is my choice for Best Actress that year.

Adjani didn't receive another nomination again until almost 15 years later for playing the sculptress Camille Claudel, who was involved romantically and professionally with Rodin in the 1880s. It's interesting to note the similarities between the two characters Adjani portrayed to receive her nominations. Both are real-life French women that excelled in the arts, but where overshadowed by a more prominent male figure in their lives that were known in the same field. Both women lived the later years of their lives institutionalized. (Although Hugo was a schizophrenic, which ran in her family - her uncle was also afflicted. It can't be certain that Claudel, who destroyed most of her work and was given to moments of mental outbursts, necessarily was. Doctors told her family there was no need to keep her there and Claudel herself would write asking her brother why he would not release her.) But Adjani never feels like she's repeating herself with her performance as Claudel, giving another fully realized performance.

As Truffaut had worked years to bring Adèle Hugo's story to the screen, Adjani herself became consumed with making a film about Camille Claudel. There was renewed interest in Claudel in the 80s when several biographies were published and Adjani bought the rights to her story, receiving the blessing of the artist's family (and stopping the development of a rival project with Isabelle Huppert attached as Claudel). Adjani worked as a producer on the film and had the father of her child, cinematographer Bruno Nuytten, make his debut as a director.

The film is much more of a traditional biopic, following Claudel as a young sculptor (we are first introduced to her as she claws away at clay late at night, consumed with the power to create) and following her over several decades as she begins her affair with Rodin (played by Gérard Depardieu) and her eventual mental breakdown. It's astonishing that Adjani is able to play the sculptor as a young woman, all fresh-faced and passionate, and then age her with the burden of life's dissapointments and make the progression seem natural, knowing exactly how to play her at every stage in her life. If the film seems to meander a little, it is never due to Adjani who keeps us transfixed as she carves out a performance as elegantly as Claudel does one of her sculptures.

Adjani lost the Oscar that year to veteran actress Jessica Tandy in that year's Best Picture winner, Driving Miss Daisy. At the time, Adjani still held the title for youngest nominee in the category and Tandy had become the oldest with this performance (both have since been replaced for their respective title). And while Adjani was a worthy nominee, I still feel the Oscar that year should've gone to Michelle Pfeiffer's slinky lounge singer Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys. But Adjani did win the French equivalent to the Oscar, the César Award, it was her third win for Best Actress of an eventual record-breaking five. Marion Cotillard just needs three more to catch up to her... With her Best Actress win and second nomination this year, Cotillard might now officially be the Academy's favorite French actress, but Adjani still reigns as France's acting Queen.


Have you seen Adjani's work? 
Do you think Marion Cotillard could possibly be able to eventually score a third nomination for a foreign language performance, surpassing the three actresses we've discussed? Make like Adèle Hugo and write your thoughts below.

PreviouslySophia Loren and Liv Ullmann

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Reader Comments (30)

Nice article! Thanks
I hope Marion will get a 3rd foreign-language nomination :)

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

I kind of love both performances, and she's my winner the two times she was nominated (sorry, Michelle). But I have to mention here that Juliette Binoche absolutely has blown me away in Camille Claudel 1915. I even forgot Adjani once played the same role. It's a masterful performance by the actual Queen of France. You know how much I love Cotillard and Adjani, but Binoche is the best.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

One of the greatest artists in cinema history. While neither of these performances approach the unparalleled genius of what she did in 1981's Possession, they're evidence of her unusual ability to guide the audience from in front of the camera, regardless of what is happening behind the camera. Her filmography should be required viewing for every performer who wants to understand the nature of cinema as a medium.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Top 5 Adjani performances:

1. Possession
2. Her own music videos (directed by Luc Besson)
3. One Deadly Summer
4. Quartet
5. Camille Claudel

That I have to leave out Story Of Adele H, Queen Margot, The Brontë Sisters, and Nosferatu is just a sign of the depth of her body of work. If you haven't seen her stuff, check her out!

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Both beautiful performances and she would have been an estimable winner both times although I favor Ann-Margret's go for broke work in Tommy in the first race. She would have been my choice for Camille Claudel though.

Since Marion was somewhat of a surprise nominee this time after several times being passed over she could pull another one sometime in the future. However this second nomination might work against her as her win the first time seemed to turn them cold on her for years. She's certainly worthy but the next nomination, if there is one, would probably be handed to her for an English speaking role.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I haven't seen Adèle H. It's probably my biggest gap in actressexuality.

I have to say I wouldn't include her among my 5 favorite female performances in 1989.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I like Adjani & Cotillard quite a lot but the French Acting Queen is the other Isabelle:
Isabelle Huppert that is.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterstjeans

She soooooo should have won both.

Camille Claudel is a pretty miserable film but she is mesmerising in it. She digs so deeply and organically into that role in such an incisive way. It's one of the most complete and fascinating portrayals of a disturbed mind I've ever seen. (I'm sorry but Pfeiffer couldn't hold a candle to this, especially in her self-consciously finicky non-singing scenes in Baker Boys. And don't even start me on Tandy.)

As for Adele H, it's not only one of my favourite films - and criminally underrated - but literally one my top 10 performances. As in, up there with Joan of Arc and Stanley Kowalski and Scarlett O'Hara. The role as written is a dream for an actress - as rich and messy and nuanced as something out of Chekhov. And from first frame to last, Adjani is just electric.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I sure hope Marion will get a third foreign language nomination. She missed for Rust and Bone, otherwise she would already have three. Then again, missing for Rust and Bone might've helped get her nominated this time. I would've nominated her for Nine too, though. If she gets nominated for Macbeth next year, will she be the first multiple foreign-language performance nominated actress to also be nominated in english?

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Oh and I second everyone else re Adjani in Possession. That's just an unbelievable piece of acting, on par with these other two performances.

Also - re Binoche as Claudel - I agree with cal roth. I approached that film with great caution and prepared derision - I didn't think anyone could contribute any more insight into this person than Adjani did. And yet, Binoche went even beyond that. I was mortified that her performance went all but unnoticed.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Adjani power! LOVE her. Possession and The Story of Adele H... are two of my favorite performances ever, and Adele H... is very close to being my favorite Truffaut film. Looking at her filmography now, though, I realize I've only actually seen a narrow range of her work - nearly everything she made from 1975 to 1981, but nothing before and only Ishtar after. Looks like I have some catching up to do.

That said, I'd like to third goran and cal on Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915. A towering performance in one of Bruno Dumont's best films. It was on Netflix last time I looked. I hope more people can check it out!

Loving this series, btw.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Adjani in "The Story of Adele H," may have won if the Academy put Louise Fletcher where she belonged, in the supporting actress category. Adjani was the most worthy nominee in 1975, a year that featured hundreds of articles on the lack of performances worthy of Best Actress. See Inside Oscar for a truthful assessment of the race that year. I think Lillian Gish made some lovely things when presenting Adjani with the NYFCC award for Best Actress.

1975 - Adjani by far.

1989 - Adjani again.

And was not she again wonderful although overshadowed by Virna Lisi in "Queen Margot?"

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

No one is talking about Subway.


February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

My first and so far only exposure to her work is Diabolique.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I saw Adele H. when it came out and was horrified when Louise Fletcher won the Oscar. But Isabelle Adjani and Truffaut gave me a love for french cinema that has lasted ever since.
I too want to point out a few other roles she did in the 70's, Polanski used her to good effect in "The Tenant" and Herzog in "Nosferatu".
She excelled at expressing darkness, passion, and longing without it becoming melodrama. It's a very difficult tightrope to walk.
And then Hollywood cast her in Ishtar, which just says it all.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

@Henry—THAT HAIR. Ugh that whole dinner scene is amazing.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTB

@TB--Adjani was nominated for a César for that.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I will always love her but i admit that my love was born of obsession over QUEEN MARGOT. goddamn that movie! but she's wonderful wonderful wonderful in THE STORY OF ADELE H and i also really like her in NOSFERATU. Herzog really nailed that one when it could have been a needless disaster.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I haven't seen Camille Claudel yet, but I too love Adjani in Adele H. I've only seen two of the Best Actress nominees that year - Adjani and Fletcher - and Adjani would be my winner out of those two.

But a word for Fletcher: I think she's excellent too, plus I've always considered her a lead, from all angles: screentime, prominence in the narrative...Nurse Ratched as a character isn't supporting anyone, she's an antagonist to the other lead (McMurphy), it's their battle all the way.

Based on other comments on this thread, I now really want to see Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915. I love Bruno Dumont's work, so can't wait to see this film.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I don't think I've ever seen a woman more beautiful than Isabelle Adjani. I have only seen her in 'Adele H.,' but what a brilliant performance.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

I don't think there's a point in comparing the two Camille Claudel's biopics, since they take place in different stages of the sculptress life. Binoche's one is all about her confinement in the asylum and Adjani's before that and the confinement is merely mentioned. While both actresses excel in their roles. they have completely different approaches to the real person. Bpth should be appreciated by their own merits, comparing them is unfair.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLuis

No one mentions the DIABOLIQUE remake with Sharon Stone?? hah

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

No one mentions the DIABOLIQUE remake with Sharon Stone?? hah

Conveniently skipping my initial post.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

@Nathaniel—Queen Margot is amazing. I tend to think of the gleeful perversity of that movie as the full realization of what an Adjani world would look like. It's all blood and sex and sweat and gorgeous people feeling things to the maximum of human emotional capability. It rules.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTB

oh my absolute favorite of the amazing actresses listed in this mini-series! she is so breathtaking as Adele Hugo.

as a sidenote, weirdly enough I have also seen Glenda in HEDDA, and boy that movie seems exactly like a stage play put on film. Glenda is great though as usual.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterfadhil

The Story of Adele H. I think is one of Francois Truffaut's better films and certainly features Isabelle Adjani in one of her finest performances yet my favorite Adjani performance is Possession. Man, that film fucked me up.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

i adore isabelle adjani and especially love her nomination for THE STORY OF ADELE H. (if you couldn't tell already from this post) but i do find it surprising that she was able to score 2 best actress nominations before catherine deneuve managed to score even one...

adjani, deneuve, binoche, huppert, cotillard - mon dieu, france has definitely produced some of cinema's finest, most talented actresses...

February 18, 2015 | Registered Commenterabstew

The film made her the five-time cesar award winner Skirt Day was also one of her best performances. Sure she hardly looks like the beauty we saw in her previous films, but she again turned in a marvellous performance as a middle-aged school teacher. Totally deserved her fifth Cesar win. To me, she should have won two Oscar already, for both of her nominated performances. One of the best actresses who never got the recognition she deserves in North America.

February 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

Two words, abstew: Jeanne Moreau.

February 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

To my mind, IA is fabulous in Queen Margot. She is amazing and so beautiful, but my favorite moovie is Adéle H.

February 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

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