Andrzej Zulawski, Possession, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 127 minutes. Anna and Mark (Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill).

IN TWO OF HER MOST high-profile films, both biopics, Isabelle Adjani played women who spent the last several decades of their long, tormented lives in mental asylums. Though the actress’s output has slowed considerably since Queen Margot (1994), she remains a peerless interpreter of derangement in the cinema of the 1970s and ’80s.

Born in Paris in 1955, Adjani committed a near-heretical act by abandoning a twenty-year contract with the Comédie Française—her country’s most prestigious theater corps, which she had joined at age sixteen—to play the lead role in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975). Based on the life of Victor Hugo’s youngest child, Truffaut’s film takes place mainly in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1863; the obsessive Adèle has crossed the Atlantic to pursue ex-lover Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson), a debauched British military officer who wants nothing more to do with her. “I have the religion of love,” Adèle proclaims; in service to her faith, this erotomaniac will sink deeper into abjection. She spies, operates under false names and identities (at one point even crashing a party as a silk-hatted gentleman), fakes a pregnancy, and procures whores for Pinson, all in the hopes of being closer to him. Throughout her increasingly desperate acts, she has recurring nightmares of drowning and furiously takes fountain pen to paper to record her cracked reality. (Adèle’s own diaries served as the template for the film’s script.) The power of Adjani’s performance—as her piercing blue eyes flash with even more terrifying brightness—stems from her intuitive understanding of her character’s greatest tragedy: that, even in her most unhinged moments, Adèle spoke with unassailable logic. “Do you think people can control their feelings? It’s possible to love a man and still despise everything about him,” she cries to a judge, bewildered by his emotional obtuseness.

One of the most pitiful scenes in Truffaut’s movie shows Adèle, now living in a poorhouse, having spent all of her father’s generous allowance to try to win Albert back, sleeping on her steamer trunk so that no one can steal the pages contained therein. This fierce attachment to one’s creative work is also the focus of Camille Claudel (1988); Adjani, playing the title role and also serving as executive producer, had been consumed for four years with adapting the life of the sculptor and Rodin muse and mistress. (The film was the directorial debut of Bruno Nuytten, a former romantic partner of the actress’s who had been the cinematographer for three of her earlier films.) Running at just a little over two-and-a-half hours, Camille Claudel suffers from typical biopic bombast and bloat. Until Claudel’s plummet into insanity, which takes up the last hour, Adjani astutely portrays the artist’s pride, independence, and unwavering determination to create. But after the final break with Rodin (Gérard Depardieu), Adjani relies heavily on histrionics: cackling, boozing, smashing, conspiracy-mongering. (The lunacy onscreen could not even begin to match what Adjani was facing in real life shortly before Camille Claudel’s release: French newspapers were falsely reporting that she was dying of AIDS, slander that the actress, in a 1990 article in the New York Times, believed was most likely punishment for her condemnation of anti-immigrant beliefs in France and her concomitant admission that her father was Algerian.)

At the midpoint between The Story of Adele H. and Camille Claudel, Adjani gave the performance of her career in Andrzej Zulawski’s West Berlin–set Possession (1981) as Anna, one half of an unraveling married couple destroying themselves—and seemingly the entire world—through binges of jealousy, rage, and despair. “I don’t know!” are Anna’s first words, spoken to husband Mark (Sam Neill), home after a long trip away for his mysterious job. Anna’s confusion, grief, and hysteria intensify after she’s admitted to Mark that she’s been having an affair—with not only an older, New Age–y German but a viscous, tentacled creature—and climax during an unforgettable, unsurpassable scene in a U-Bahn passageway. Hurling her groceries against the wall, Anna violently twitches and flails, eventually falling to her knees, moaning like an animal and oozing copious amounts of blood and white goo from her orifices. It’s a testament to Adjani’s deep commitment to the role that the liquids do not appear to be special effects.

Melissa Anderson

“Adjani” runs at BAMcinématek March 8 through 21.