What is an Auteur? Well, the technical definition is a simply a filmmaker who has a singular, recognisable vision, though you can guarantee they’ll also be a man as no women have been deemed important or visionary enough to become members of this elite club. As we all know, the singular vision of men is pretty much all that has been written about for basically, you know, ever, so in this column, I’ll be avoiding that completely and exploring the women of auteur film. The muses, the artistic partners, and the long-suffering foils of these sometimes talented, often awful, and universally celebrated men.
The Women Of Auteur Film: Isabelle Adjani
Auteur film is a classification I usually prefer to avoid, although the films themselves can be astoundingly majestic, well crafted, and often groundbreaking. It’s a phrase so drenched in maleness and elitism that just reading it often makes me fall into a deep slumber, filled with dreams of incredible female filmmakers being recognised for their achievements. Alas, those are but dreams, and in the real world, female directors are rarely included in the hushed tones saved for the men that the industry has deemed “Auteurs.” Many of the most revered auteurs would have been nothing without the incredible women whom they collaborated with and were inspired by. This series is for them.
I first discovered Isabelle Adjani when I was a teen, obsessed with film, constantly searching for myself in a world that was seemingly devoid of stories about unhappy, strong, confused women, women who lived outside of the happy complicity that society expects. Then one evening in my local video shop I discovered Nosferatu The Vampyre and, with it, Werner Herzog and European arthouse cinema. Suddenly I was thrown into a world in which women are often at the centre of film, the heart of these strange, languid, unsettling, and dreamlike worlds. These women are complex, have lived through trauma, and seem to actually exist outside of the hour and a half that you meet them in.
Isabelle Adjani is unquestionably one of the most famous French actors of all time. The only actor to become a five-time winner of the Cesar Best Actress Award, her career spans forty years and uniquely she has worked with four of the most lauded auteurs. Often a collaboration between an actress and an auteur will span multiple films or even sometimes an entire career. An actress’ contribution and agency in this process is often shrugged off, pushed aside, and sometimes completely erased with a simple phrase “Artist’s Muse.” The archaic notion that these women did nothing more than inspire male filmmakers directly erases the craft of the incredible actresses who, alongside directors, create art that is looked upon as historically groundbreaking and important. Thus, it is rare that these female collaborators are given the recognition or credit they deserve. Adjani broke out of this mould by carving her own path outside of merely one director’s vision.
Adjani’s breakout performance came in 1975 with The Story Of Adele H. On the surface, it’s an unremarkable historical drama that relies heavily on problematic tropes of female hysteria and heteronormative ideas of women being obsessed with marriage. But with her performance, twenty-year-old Isabelle crafted a stunning portrait of a woman torn in two by her trauma. The film is based on the life and diaries of Adele Hugo, the daughter of French novelist Victor Hugo. Her life was fraught with struggles, including mental illness and trauma following her sister’s death in a drowning accident. The film tells the tale of Adele’s obsession with an ex-lover, which not only consumed the last half of her life, but also ended it with her father institutionalising her.
Adele Hugo’s story should have always been centered around her, but this could have very easily been forgotten in the face of Truffaut’s broad vision for the project. The movie took him over seven years to make, and he became consumed with its completion, making the the creation of the film more about his process and passion than the subject herself. Yet Adjani’s depth–which was so powerful that the director opted to shoot much of the film in intense closeups to capture the nuance of her performance–lifted the film out of basic male gaze and melodrama, creating an experience which for many critics and fans alike was the highlight of a mediocre film.
In the years after The Story of Adele H, Isabelle Adjani was one of the most sought after actresses in Europe. She caught the eye of many directors and starred in a number of films including cult-hit The Driver. By the late 1970s, she had cemented herself as a true master of her craft.
Her raw emotional honesty and strength flung her into the line of vision of some of the biggest directors on Earth. One of them was Werner Herzog. He called Adjani “a female genius” and cast her opposite his regular collaborator, Klaus Kinski. The three of them went on to create one of the definitive representations of Bram Stoker’s classic book, Dracula. Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre is a visual feast utilizing a colour palette that was in stark contrast with Herzog’s signature black and whites. The film introduced audiences to a sumptuous yet ethereal world where Scarborough’s empty beaches could be just as haunting as Kinski’s tortured immortal.
Isabelle once again brought a quality to the film that raised it out of what most set aside as a genre flick, a remake of a classic movie, into something spectacular. Her ethereal haunted presence made a perfect foil to Kinski’s repressed, demented, and heartbroken ghoul. Kinski was a notoriously volatile man, but Adjani brought out a softness. Together, the two managed to craft an unspoken connection between their characters of untold shared suffering. Her performance enabled Kinski to build a romantic, tired, and devastatingly lonely creature, one who was poles apart from the fashionable, beautiful vampires that were en vogue at the time. Her performance as Lucy Harker was at the heart of Nosferatu The Vampyre‘s unique appeal, success, and longevity.
Three years before she made her mark in Herzog’s acclaimed retelling of the most famous gothic love story on the planet, she caught the eye of another director who rounds off the triptych of auteurs that she worked with in her career: Roman Polanski. As a rule, I try not to write or give a platform to men who have raped or abused women, particularly those who have been protected so they could have successful careers afterward. In this case, though, I’ll speak about Isabelle and her role in the success of Polanski’s The Tenant, because the erasure of women in film, especially in relation to arthouse success and auteur cinema, is directly linked with the toxic culture of Hollywood that allows men to commit numerous, violent crimes against women and be allowed to continue their artistic endeavours completely unimpeded.
I must point out that in writing this profile, I discovered that Adjani, who has by no means been outspoken in support for Polanski, did co-sign a letter in 2009 asking for his release from a Swiss prison where he was being held in relation to statutory rape charges from the 1970s. This made me wonder if I should even finish writing this piece. After much thought, I decided that looking at Adjani’s career as a woman in film within the context of auteurs and the male gaze was an important topic for this series, so I chose to finish the piece whilst acknowledging Adjani’s one time support of an accused rapist.
The Tenant is Polanski’s nihilistic Kafka-esque meditation on community, communication, and society’s ability to impact and change people. It focuses on a young man Trelkovsky–played by the director himself–who moves into the apartment of a woman who recently threw herself out of the window and died shortly after. Trelkovsky slowly begins to find himself consumed by the life of his predecessor, becoming more and more influenced by his neighbours, who may or may not have had something to do with her untimely death.
Adjani’s performance in The Tenant is subtly radical. Playing the lover of the apartment’s former tenant, Simone, she first meets Trelkovsky by her partner’s hospital bed, a visit he has only made in the hope that she will die and he can take her apartment. When Simone dies in front of them both, it sets up an intimacy and unbalance–as Trelkovsky lies about his identity–that creates a space for Adjani’s Stella to be truly vulnerable. Yet, as the film progresses her character is anything but; Polanski’s world is one where women are the sexual predators, where he is almost an unwilling participant in their actions and passions. Adjani’s honest portrayal of Stella, a woman devastated by the death of her lover, yet wholly invested in pursuing a physical relationship with another, is nuanced and believable where it could have been jarring and false. Though Adjani’s role is a small one, she creates a space for Trelkovsky to breathe, to live outside of the paranoia and obsession of his home and neighbours.
It’s easy to get lost in the enigma and romance of the myth of the auteur. The strange idolatry around a director’s vision can mean every other part of what makes that creation work gets lost, with all other collaborators’ work assimilated to nothing but one man’s vision. Adjani’s path disrupts that. She has created a prolific body of work spanning over 50 years, which has included work with three of the most lauded directors in film, but has never been defined by them.