In Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975), love–unrequited love to be exact–is like a virus. It consumes the young Adele Hugo, the second daughter to author Victor, to a point where she stalks the man she is in love with all the way from Paris to Halifax. And it’s to this film’s strength that it understands this consumptive nature of love, and how tragic it can be. Written all over Adele’s face, portrayed by the beautiful Isabelle Adjani, is anguish and desperation hiding under the mask of an ingenue type. Her porcelain face is often illuminated by candle light as she scrawls page after page her feelings of admiration and affection, only for them to be spurned. If, as is often said, Jean-Luc Godard was the brains of the French New Wave, then Francois Truffaut was the heart. The Story of Adele H., now enjoying a gorgeous, limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time, is particularly emblematic of that.
There’s a careful balance at work in the film that seems to be the product of both Adjani’s deftness as an actress and performer, and Truffaut’s sensitivity as a director who is very committed to character–especially as a director coming from the Nouvelle Vague. We aren’t supposed to find Miss Hugo, who at the time of arrival in Halifax is under the name Miss Lewly, as pathetic, but rather pitiable and worthy of our sympathy and empathy. The viral component of love colors every scene, as her object of desire, Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson), is actually as much of the focal point in scenes with both of them as she is. Truffaut oscillates between an inexplicable admiration of a gambler and presumed lothario and the much to be commiserated with Adele.
It would be to the film’s detriment for Truffaut to portray Adele as one dimensional– merely crazy, merely obsessive, merely lovesick. (It’d also perpetuate some rather nasty stereotypes about women.) But there is a pathos deep within Adjani’s performance and, were she to be on the more sadistic side, her character would be almost a progenitor of Gone Girl‘s Amy Dunne.
However, the clear difference between those two characters is that Amy Dunne is more a response to the box that Adele is put in/wants to puts herself in: Adele’s desirous yearnings are to occupy a role which, contextually, is required of her within society. She details this paradigm of what love is in her diary (upon which the film is based), and it’s a construct that is to end in her as a wide to her love. Dunne, in contrast exist to subvert that paradigm and shake it up.
But the infectious nature of unrequited love seems to manifest in a bit of a literal sense when Adele falls ill to pleurisy, an inflammation of the tissue around the lungs and chest cavity. She falls to the ground, rather gracefully if I may say so, in the snow, the deep red of her garments seemingly splattered against the winter white canvas. Her heart, full of as yet undiluted, undistributed passion, causes her sickness.
Much like Truffaut’s other films, like The Wild Child, our doorway into her head and heart is through the written word. There’s a delicate line that the film walks to make Adele’s love seem convincing and overwhelming, but not entirely “insane”. Though the frustration is visible on Robinson’s chiseled face, he never acts as if to infer Adele is “crazy”, but he does find her tiresome and worthy of contempt. Adjani, though, has poems in the lines of her face. (It makes sense, given that her character’s father was one of the most famous.) These diary entries also act as a form of self-validation, a need to convince herself that her feelings are real, raw, and valid.
But for all the sympathy paid to Adele’s character, Truffaut acknowledges somewhat dispassionately that love can be a destructive power, with this particular case being self-destructive. It is also suffocating, her nightmares presented as horrific drownings.
With regards to the normative dynamics at work here, the societal functions responsible, Adele, in a confrontation with Pinson, says that it was initially he who sought her. It’s crucial to understand that Adele’s abandonment of her family in pursuit of marriage to this man exists as perhaps her only option.
Adele H. takes place at the same time as American Civil War, a time when the roles for women in society were still minimal beyond domesticity. Love, therefore, is not the only thing fueling Adele’s obsession; it’s security as well. But unlike the wealth porn of something like Fifty Shades of Grey, Pinson has nearly nothing. And yet the status is still contingent on a certain amount of respect from her family and from the society as a whole.
By the end of the film, Adele walks the street in a tattered dress, billowing in the wind, recalling imagery from Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black — yet another film in which love becomes a haunting reminder of what was lost.
The Story of Adele H. is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. Special features are slim, but include an isolated score track, audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, and the original 1975 theatrical trailer.