The Story of Adèle H. July 25, 2016
There are undoubtedly hundreds of 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 careful aloofness). But there is not an actress besides the then-20-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 intoxicating artistic partnership thus makes for 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. Detached from reality and unwavering in its depiction of erotic obsession, it keeps us away from outright empathy and instead indulges our filmgoing 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 Adèle was placed in an insane asylum, where she quietly lived for 40 years until her death in 1915, at the age of 85. 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 living in her delusions, traveling anywhere Pinson landed and putting on various façades in attempts to win her would-be lover over.
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, 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, 41 years after its release, is one of the defining moments in her lauded career. 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. A-