The Story of Adèle H. July 25, 2016
There are, in no doubt, hundreds of burgeoning directors who could have made 1975’s The Story of Adèle H. with a little more flair than French auteur François Truffaut (who goes for clinically aloof rather than supplely lush). But there is not an actress besides the then-twenty-year-old Isabelle Adjani who could have embodied the title role so without flaw. When Truffaut goes for nonchalant naturalism, Adjani goes for dangerously passionate, and the symbiotically intoxicating artistic partnership thus makes for thoroughly arresting cinema.
Biographical pictures are not so usually harmonious in their delivery — conventionality over personal style is to be anticipated — but The Story of Adèle H. sings, asking us to pretend as though it exists in a swirling world of melancholy and not another portion of our own realities. Detached from actuality and ardent in its depiction of erotic obsession, it keeps us away from empathy and instead indulges our cinematic tendency to voyeuristically gaze.
How could one look away, anyhow, from the plight of our tragic heroine, Adèle Hugo? The daughter of revolutionary French writer Victor Hugo (Les Misérables), Adèle, in her youth, was briefly romanced by the British Lieutenant Albert Pinson (brought to life in the film by Bruce Robinson), who ultimately proposed marriage but, like many lusty soldiers of the time, didn’t really mean the proposition and wants to move on.
But the fleetingly amorous relationship had a destructive impact on Adèle’s mind, which, with the aid of a now better understanding of psychology, is believed to have been affected by both schizophrenia and erotomania. The film follows her for a year (1863-64) as her mental state deteriorates, introducing her as a fragile beauty undermined by her subtle madness and leaving her after she’s lost her sanity completely. The decay found in the middle is marvelously portrayed by Adjani, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work.
Following her long bout of derangement was Adèle eventually placed in an insane asylum, where she quietly lived for forty years until her death in 1915 at the age of eight-five. But that section of her life is wisely summarized in the credits — most compelling about Adèle Hugo’s existence, I think, were those seminal years that saw her almost compulsively living in her delusions, traveling anywhere Pinson landed and putting on various façades in besetting attempts to win her would-be lover over. The young woman was kept loose for far too long — a person in her state of mind is more than just a little bit of a danger to themselves — but watching her do anything (at one point, she even visits a hypnotist) to wrangle Pinson back into her life is as sad as it is heartbreakingly humorous.
Obviously Adèle never had a moment in her long life not hindered by her dementia, but viewing her psychological crumbling is tragically tantalizing. Sometimes Truffaut’s writing and direction flirts with ubiquity, but Adjani, so impassioned, is enthralling. Behind Adèle’s porcelain allure and waif-like body language hides a torrent of aberration, and Adjani, among the most gifted actresses of her generation, finds the nuances within Adèle’s mental decomposition with terrifyingly realistic fury. The role catapulted Adjani to stardom, and, forty-one years after its release, rests as one of the most defining moments in her lauded career. Beholding the performance in all its stormy glory, her witchery as an actress has perhaps gotten better with age.
And The Story of Adèle H. has ripened with time, too: an iconic moment in 1970s French cinema and a high point in Truffaut’s thrill seeking filmography, it’s a biographical picture that overcomes its limitations as a simple retelling. Adèle Hugo might have been destroyed by her mind, but her collapse makes for exceptional fascination for the silver screen. A-