One of France’s more exotic actresses, Isabelle Adjani was born to an Algerian father and German mother near Paris, where she was raised. So her presence at this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival (December 2-10, 2016), where she received a tribute for her body of work, is something of a homecoming of sorts. (Algeria borders Morocco, after all.)
Becoming the youngest nominee for a Best Actress award at the Oscars, when she was 19, for the film “The Story of Adele H” directed by François Truffaut, she was soon offered a huge number of roles in films as diverse as Werner Herzog‘s “Nosferatu the Vampyre” and Luc Besson’s “Subway,” and she’s since gone on to win five César awards.
Adjani’s latest turn is in Louis-Julien Petit‘s “Carole Matthieu,” an adaptation of the novel by Marin Ledun, where she plays a workplace physician in a call center who decides to do something about the physical and emotional suffering her clients are experiencing in the workplace.
Do the characters you play stay with you?
I’m part of them, and they are part of me. They have given me something that has made me evolve in a little part of my soul. I feel emotional about them. Being an actress all my life, or since I was very young, has not been a waste of time. They are staying with me, and we are one. We met, we became one person, and then we had to separate. It is not like a lot of entities taking possession of my being. It is like when you fall in love with a book, and a character becomes some sort of guide within yourself. It changes you, and can even affect your destinies.
Why did you become an actress?
I have become an actress to make some of my drama that came from literature come true. That is why I like so much period pieces. If I believed in a former life, I would feel they were souls from another time. When I act, I love to jump into a world of emotions, of everything that made me who I was, as a small girl.
How do you feel about your character, Carole Matthieu?
What I have for her is empathy, because she has been weakened by the strength she has sacrificed for the sake of others. That is what made me close to her. She has become blinded by her task as a savior. In order to go all the way, she has gone too far to go back. It is a character I have compassion for, more than one that has anything to do with me, even though I am able to take care of others. For me, to be an actress is to take care of other people. What we do is organize through feelings and emotional transmission. That’s what great actors do for me. Not just entertain people for a couple of hours. That is not enough.
Do you care about the characters you play?
Yes, I do, which does not mean I can’t play an awful person. It can be fun, but it’s more like a catharsis. It can be fun as an actress to embody the nasty stuff, and try to make sense out of it. You have different ways to care about them, depending on your needs. I like the idea of nursing the characters. I love the notion of exchange.
The part you play in “Carole Matthieu” relates to things going on in France. Do such things concern you?
It is something that the director and myself, with the author, got really concerned by. We thought there was some sort of emergency to talk about. We wanted the film to happen, as fast as possible, to give people an open space to speak up. This is from fiction, but we wanted to use fiction to approach reality, with whoever can make change for them.
With [the director], he only wants to make social subjects and is a great admirer of Ken Loach, and really wants to address the problems in France in a way that they have not been done yet. There is way to address those suicides. When it happened, people said people must have problems outside of their work. They were not aware that it can come from the way they were treated at work. Even in the medical field, there was a cardiologist that committed suicide a few years ago.
How is the situation for women in the film industry in France?
It was too soon in France for someone to understand an actress who would produce when I first tried. American actresses are much better at doing that. France is the country where the producer is God, the director is nothing, and the actress belongs to the director. It is now changing, and you don’t have to wait for the God to choose. I’m working on developing a few projects. I have been offered projects, as a producer and actress. I think the more you work, the less tired you get. I like to work with teams and people.
How do you choose your projects?
To me, it is all about making sense. When you are an actress, there are so many films that you do, and so many that you don’t. There are reasons for why you really try to make something happen, or otherwise I feel bored or guilty doing it (if it wasn’t meaningful). If I ask if it means a lot to me, and everyone else, then it is all good. I admire Daniel Day-Lewis, because he can do a film every four years and it becomes the center of his life and the full reason to become an actor. I love actors that give you the feeling that it had to exist, that found a way to make their convictions come true. I’m not saying it always happens like that, because I have been like, “I have to go to work.”
You have taken a few breaks in your career.
It is just life. I don’t like to know about my age. I don’t like my age to be said. I am like, “Oh my God. That’s just me. I am a dreamer.” I am lucky to be around and out there, and to be able to choose the right project. The reasons are rational only for me. I have other fields of passion, like my children and others. In life, you are given a lot, and are being asked a lot. You have a chance to say “No,” or “I will be there for you.” Everyone has a right to decide how they will lead their lives. Life is complicated enough. They have a right to [decide].
How was it working with Andrzej Zulawski?
“Possession” is only the type of film you can do when you are young. He is a director that makes you sink into his world of darkness and his demons. It is okay when you are young, because you are excited to go there. His movies are very special, but they totally focus on women, as if they are lilies. It was quite an amazing film to do, but I got bruised, inside out. It was exciting to do. It was no bones broken, but it was like, “How or why did I do that?” I don’t think any other actress ever did two films with him.