This article is part of a series of pieces covering or inspired by the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The mythic “French girl” of perfume ads and fashion magazines is an attractive and elusive figure, synonymous with streamlined elegance and a cultivated air of non-specific mystery: one of the few brands of “foreign” that are seen as palatable to the consumers in the United States. But like any commercial fantasy, the “French girl” exists entirely on the surface, her fabulous clothes and air of detached irony obscuring the more relatable (but less conventionally attractive) facts of her psychology. In her playful assumption (or knowing rejection) of a feminine ideal, she leverages her audience’s preconceived image of young womanhood to master her circumstances for herself.
In director Cyril Teste’s stage adaptation of the 1977 John Cassavetes film, Opening Night, the iconic — and former “French girl” par excellence — Isabelle Adjani took on the role made famous by Gena Rowlands and, through a blistering performance, transformed that breezy ideal into a flesh-and-blood woman of significant psychological depth.
Adjani (like Rowlands before her) played Myrtle Gordon, a successful and glamorous — and alcoholic — stage actress certain of her own power. Gordon seemingly holds her own against the domineering male personalities of her cast and crew until the sudden and violent death of a young fan sends her reeling. From there Opening Night tracks the actress’s emotional free-fall as the truths that sustained her are thrown into question and her life and performance, both onstage and off, bleed frighteningly into each other.
In its unflinching pursuit of the key to Myrtle’s self, the film posed a fascinating question: How do you master your circumstances when the fundamental facts of your self — or the fundamental image of your self — begin to shift beneath you? Teste zeroed in on this question in his adaptation, which played for three nights at French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival this September. Reducing the cast to three actors, Teste wielded an arsenal of techniques — video, improvisation, fourth-wall shattering asides — that closed the distance between audience and performers. The result was a show that captured in stark and poetic terms the turmoil of being dispossessed of one’s identity.
As a text, Cassavetes’ Opening Night provides endless possibilities for an experimentalist like Teste. Indeed, it has proven irresistible to other auteur stage directors. In October, a 101-person version of the same film by the Australian team Nat Randall and Anna Breckon played at BAM — the venue where Ivo van Hove’s adaptation was presented in 2008. The show’s essential themes of reality and performance collapsing into each other are ripe for Teste, a director whose previous stage credits include Hamlet and an adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s brutal, minimalist film, Festen. Teste’s enthusiasm for tinkering with form meshes well with Cassavetes’ own oeuvre. A significant portion of the original film was shot live before an audience in Pasadena, with the director leaving his actors to improvise whole scenes of dialogue in between essential scripted moments.
Teste’s calling card is a technique he calls “filmic performance,” which strives to expand the experience of theatre-going with the technical possibilities of cinema. An unexplained, but unobtrusive cameraman trailed the actors throughout the show, broadcasting video in crisp black and white to a massive screen at the center of the set, showing their outsized reactions onstage and behind the scenes. What initially seemed like a bid for laughs crystallized into a potent metaphor for parallel selves, as the camera elevated and laid bare the blunt facts of each character in ways that were painfully foreign to them, but all too plain for the audience to see.
Where Rowlands savagely tore through the image of shellacked Hollywood glamour, Adjani pulled a similar feat with the “French girl.” Her performance was of a piece with Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert, French actresses whose chilly veneers of immaculate chic conceal volcanic pools of undigested feeling. In their thoughtful rendering of difficult women, these actresses underline the strictures of women’s roles by casting them aside or having them violently torn off.
Adjani, though, has an air of gloomy mystery about her, as if in approaching darkness so closely some of it has rubbed off on her. In a harrowing New York Times profile from 1990, the actress described how she had been hounded by journalists questioning her sanity or even whether she’d died of AIDS. Promotional materials for the show state that her role in Opening Night mirrors her own turbulent experience in the spotlight.
In Opening Night she wore the scars of performing on her face. She delivered her lines in manic, pathetic, and beseeching tones, as if desperate to hang onto something tangible, and confused about what is and is not real. In one of the most chilling and pivotal scenes, Adjani rimmed her eyes with lipstick after wrestling with the phantom of her deceased young fan. Her eyes bulged as the camera captured her beautiful, weathered face. As she reached out to the audience, the crisp black and white of the film behind her suddenly glowed into color. Had she succumbed to her madness or emerged wholly new? Neither Adjani nor Teste provided an answer; instead, they offered a complicated truth more searing than any surface ideal.
Opening Night ran at FIAF Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan, New York, September 12-14, 2019.