The Story of Adèle H. (L'histoire d'Adèle H., 1975)

François Truffaut’s oeuvre was long preoccupied, apart from the love for raw cinema itself, by an anxious and fascinated contemplation of the fusion of events, influences, ideas, and passions that eventually composite as human identity and personality. Passion in Truffaut’s films usually came in two braided strands – romantic and creative. Such passions could be the making of his characters or the breaking of them, or even both at once, for the trials of intense sublimation into a passion is the very stuff of life and once exhausted all that’s left is either a moment for a grand auto-da-fe, a la Catherine in Jules et Jim (1961), or settling into maintenance, a more common fate. This note rings over and over in his films, from Charlie Koller’s episodes of romantic awakening in Shoot the Piano Player (1960) to Claude Roc studying his own ageing face once his affairs are done and his books written in Two English Girls (1971). Even when Truffaut was left laughing at his protagonists, like the love-struck fool and charming sociopath of A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1973), there’s a powerful undercurrent of rueful knowing as well as empathy – but what else can we do but expose ourselves? the director asks. Some of Truffaut’s protagonists, with neither the ability to create nor to love in a traditional manner, were led to perform elaborate acts of self-invention and destruction instead.

If Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, starting with The 400 Blows (1959), represented a familiar autobiographical struggle with these notions, and his Henri-Pierre Roché adaptations Jules et Jim and Two English Girls (1971) annexed another artist’s accounts to more fully flesh out his own, his two peculiar essays in historical factuality, L’Enfant Sauvage (1970) and The Story of Adèle H., take on polarised view or evolution and devolution from the civilised state. Made as the immediate follow-up to his very successful, droll celebration of moviemaking as the ideal zone for protean life adventures for the terminally reality-addled, Day for Night (1973), The Story of Adèle H. was a plunge back into a rarefied zone of artistry for the director, a stern and coolly unsentimental look at what happens to such personalities when they’re adrift in a world that refuses their fantasias. The second half of Truffaut’s career remains somewhat disregarded, as his shaded, more personal works were spaced out between good-natured movies for the mass audience, romances and farces. The Story of Adèle H.’s main claim to fame has long been the electrifying performance of 19-year-old Isabelle Adjani, inhabiting the title role, the ill-fated daughter of Victor Hugo.

During the Hugo family’s exile to Guernsey, enforced by Victor’s cultural resistance and political dissent against the current regime of Napoleon III, Adèle had a brief affair with handsome young British cavalier, Lieutenant Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson, future director of Withnail and I, 1987). Adèle, an inveterate diarist and music composer, has become so fatally fixated on the callow, glacially handsome libertine, she follows him to Halifax, Nova Scotia, after he’s reposted there. Adèle skirts the troublesome queues at customs enforced by political apprehension, although she brings her own form of strife. Staying in the boarding house of Mrs and Mr Saunders (Sylvia Marriott and Ruben Dorey), Adèle invents the details of her life from moment to moment, person to person, during her attempts to track and make appeal to Pinson, lying to her parents in letters and trying to extract money from them to pay off Pinson’s gambling debts. The Lieutenant himself, writing Adèle off as “highly-strung,” is enjoying his youth but has plans to marry himself to an affluent wife, and succeeds in becoming engaged to a local nob’s daughter. Adèle foils the match by alerting the family to Pinson’s misdeeds real and imagined, but still continues to offer Pinson money and even sends him a prostitute to take care of his erotic needs.

Adèle’s plight seems like the stuff of modern celebrity culture – you can just imagine the headlines in the tabloid press – and the advent of a world tied together by telegraph and steam-driven transport gives rise to an international culture of celebrity is viewed by Truffaut in its earliest, crudest form. Adèle struggles to escape its bonds both to further her own quest and also to define herself. The deliberate erasure of her last name in the title points towards Adèle’s own insistent efforts to both hide from and rewrite her identity as she gives herself up to a fixation that serves nonetheless, all too briefly, as the incredible engine for ferocious expression and self-construction. She becomes, in her way, the perfect Truffaut protagonist. Like Doinel and Koller she’s on the run from former identity but finds every path doomed to lead her back to it. Like the antiheroine of The Bride Wore Black (1968) she adopts a series of identities to mollify, trick, and spur the attention of others and also declare her own will, this time not in service to dead-eyed revenge but chasing an equally obscure goal. The frantic efforts of his love-struck and volatile men to please changeable women, glimpsed in Jules et Jim and A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, give way here to an intellectual female character driven to the same extremes by a male bimbo avatar for the idea of romantic obsession rather than a worthy vessel for it. 

Adèle arrives in Halifax during the heightened security and fervour of the American Civil War, reverberating through the transatlantic sphere, whilst the Hugo family itself has been forced from France by dictatorship. These self-consuming acts of civil strife drive individuals to odd corners of the world for duty whilst also mimicking interior processes, of psyches and bodies torn from their roots and pitched part against part in the name of elusive ideals. Adèle catches the eye of a bookseller, Whistler (Joseph Blatchley), who attentively supplies her with reams of paper for her bloodshot-eyed midnight scribbling, unaware at first of either her true identity or her obsession. When he tries to surprise her with a gift of volumes of Les Miserables, he gains only cold contempt and terminated custom. Meanwhile Adèle becomes a familiar face at the post office as she sends off her pleading missives extracting cash from her father, at least until one day she enters with loose and wild hair and fresh staff members see only a loopy waif; after constructing false identities aplenty Adèle ends up as stranger to herself. 

The great power in Adjani’s star-making performance certainly lies in her ability to depict fierce intelligence and deepening irrationalism as kissing cousins, eventually squeezing her like an anaconda’s coils until her personality is extinguished. She conveys the experience of a noble mind being overthrown with terrible intimacy. In perhaps the film’s most pathetic interlude, and Adèle’s, she manages to catch Pinson with his fellow cavalry warriors out in the countryside, holding out a fistful of cash to him, desperate longing in her eyes but also a detectable seam of defiance in degradation, a challenge to offer anything so condescending as pity, preferring instead the kind of haughty contempt Pinson can offer in spades. Adjani’s Adèle seems more like a Dostoyevsky character rather than one of her father’s in her drive to touch the bottom of experience, in order to gain sight of grace, and she even turns an image of Pinson into her own personal icon, a photo to be worshipped by candlelight, evoking Doinel’s similar shrine for creative heroism. Truffaut and Adjani labour to diagnose a seemingly common anxiety for creative people, that they won’t be able to tell the difference between their usual flow of associative and fixated thinking as vital to their inspiration from the onset of actual, genuine insanity.

Truffaut invests subtle tension in the way his cool, mature cinematic style contrasts the spectacle in fearsome hysteria that is Adèle’s crumbling psyche. Néstor Almendros’ photography for Truffaut was at a height here in achieving a crisp yet plangent concision, whilst the director excises all airy gestures and the gimmicks that peppered his early films, and yet remaining deeply cognizant of space, colour, light. A Wellesian early shot sees Adèle enter Whistler’s store just after Pinson leaves it, mindful of the man without even as she forces herself to make conversation with the bookseller within; the space of the store is rendered simultaneously cage-like and panorama-offering, a viewpoint for the observer rather than the protagonist of passion. Later Truffaut offers the inverse of the scene as plaintive diminuendo, in the sight of Whistler gazing out through the glass mournfully at Adèle as she pivots on the street, deep in a psychotic fit. To appease Hugo family members Truffaut had to avoid depicting Victor, who becomes an alternately admonishing and pleading voice on the other side of the world, giving both eminent good advice to his daughter but also entirely useless to her fraying and floundering being. The notion of paternalist authority as detached and ignorant, long a Truffaut conviction, is echoed when he depicts Pinson being chewed out by a patronising superior similarly left as a voice from on high.

Nostalgic evocations, a feel for the tactile and transporting qualities of relics, were another key facet for Truffaut’s films, and The Story of Adèle H. exists in a similarly sepulchral zone to Two English Girls in evoking days past where faded faces in tintypes hover in ghostly judgement and mores were both more strict but passions more vivid on some evanescent level, a ruffle of lace, the crinkle in a leather glove, the whiff of a musty page carry potent erotic crackle. The syntax for conveying passion and intellect Truffaut developed in Two English Girls returns as Adèle narrates her writings direct to the camera, staring glowing-eyed at the camera looming against shadowy backdrops, interior epistle delivered as monologue to whatever audience is available. But the coherence of the direct-to-camera monologues breaks down into a treacherous system of double-exposed nightmare images as Adèle is beset by dreams of drowning, as Adèle threatens to give birth the surrealist age in her worship of love’s world-transfiguring power and immersion in nocturnal lands where all things the daylight denies are possible. The entrapment of celebrity and the potential for empathy find an ironic end at least as Adèle is saved by an aged black woman and former slave (Madame Louise) who takes her in hand and brings her home, inspired by her father’s example as a voice of common feeling.

A sequence in which Adèle sneaks into a party to Pinson dressed as in a man’s evening war, complete with top hat, white gloves, and cape, carries a strong hint of a Feuillade reference, and this scene and a droll if unnecessary later sequence in which Adele tries to hire a vaudeville mesmerist to compel Pinson feel close to Truffaut’s fellow New Wave renegade Jacques Rivette’s legends of witty women and moonstruck, never-never adventure. The subsequent confrontation between Adèle and Pinson in a cemetery suggests a host of likenesses, morbid ecstasies again reminiscent of the surrealists hovering as ghostly promises amongst the tombstones even as Pinson chokes off any hope of such fulfilment. Pinson’s appearance of the storybook cavalier is however in thrall to bourgeois cynicism as a gold digger: it finally takes Adèle’s incapacity to recognise him to shock and move him. Like the preservationists of Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Adèle eventually enters into a perfect trance state that sees her transcend the need for the physical object of her obsession. Truffaut has Adèle first appear in darkness, a ghostly figure emanating from the night mist in the Halifax harbour, and burns midnight oils until she finally emerges amidst the sunstruck climes of Barbados. There she wanders streets as blankly foreign and shattered as Welles’ Macao in The Immortal Story (1968), lost in the bright, guiding sun of a monomaniac’s abstracted purity of vision.

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