It may be neither here nor there as to how French filmmaking great, François Truffaut, shadowed some strong affections for the brash, bright actress, Isabelle Adjani, during the making of L’Histoire d’Adèle H. (The Story of Adèle H.). The world and backstory of cinema has numerous tales of involvement / admiration / alleged romance between those working together on film.
For my francs, the relationship between Truffaut and Adjani, on this particular 1975 motion picture, excels in both craft and performance. The love story (of sorts) that L’Histoire d’Adèle H. depicts is so rich, so beguiling, the artists’ personal lives ought to play no further part here.
Truffaut’s crescendo picture is Adjani’s breakout role. L’Histoire d’Adèle H. recounts the life of Adèle Hugo, daughter of one of the world’s greatest writers, Victor Hugo, notably her unrequited love for a British cavalier. An infatuation, in fact, that gradually contributes to Adèle’s mental downfall. Adapted from the actual diaries of Adèle, and set during the American Civil War, she stations herself in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in hope of rekindling a fling with Pinson (Bruce Robinson). An unlikely venture, given he now has little interest, whereas Adèle enters the persistent realm of obsession.
Adèle is often haunted in her nightmares of the older sister, Léopoldine, who tragically drowned at the age of nineteen. Her delusion that Pinson is her beloved, though, takes center stage on the young woman’s emotional path. It all becomes a fantasy, writing to her parents that she intends to marry Pinson, yet all he wants is for her to cease pursuing him. Adèle hardly looks like halting, soon convincing herself she is Pinson’s wife. In line with maintaining her clandestine identity, the increasingly eccentric, muddled Adèle even asks she be addressed as Mrs. Pinson.
When her father, Victor Hugo, posts the marriage announcement in the local press, Pinson is given a stern talking to by his superior. Adèle’s madness grows as her persistence continues, seemingly oblivious to the rejections and ridicule. Right up until the film’s final moments, when Pinson sees her ambling about the streets, donning rags, and an expression of numbed despair. He calls her name, but she appears to not even recognize him.
L’Histoire d’Adèle H. may well be attributed to the biopic genre, but Truffaut chooses to focus on the decline of Adèle’s personality and mental well-being. Her father does eventually put her in an asylum for the remaining years of her life, but the film only touches on this. So, too, do we not see the childhood of the writer’s daughter, or even the initial relationship between Adèle and Pinson. And it’s a fine move, managing to make the transition of one person based on a supposed love, and allow it to dictate the pace without want for much on-screen backstory.
The romantic obsession is more than enough to give the picture a true sense of allure and admiration. Adèle spills from one dilemma or display of awkward affection to the next, never does the film slip into the ludicrous or full-on melodrama. There is even an added dimension of the love story, common and effective in many a tale, that lies in the adoration for Adèle from the bookseller she frequents. But she hardly notices him in that way.
In an early scene, Adèle walks into the bookshop at the moment Pinson has just left, crossing paths without even knowing it. Unknown her father is the mighty Victor, or that Adèle is shielding her identity, the bookseller gives her volumes of Les Miserables, written by Hugo, of course. She is angered by his gesture, assuming he has heard people gossip about her real name, and that the book is a bad joke. Poor chap.
Adèle’s story is a sad one, but intriguing and engaging all the way. You may feel sorry for her at times, cringe at some of her actions in others, but the vision, the affliction of such a mode of affection is touch to turn your back on. She even dresses as a man so she can sneak into a dinner party and see Pinson. Their proceeding confrontation in a graveyard demonstrates a woman whose repression is relenting, but there’s a passion in Adèle that can’t be fought off. Pinson almost falls back into her arms.
In an early encounter, she puts her hand over his mouth before he can speak – perhaps not wanting his input to even come close to shattering her fallacy. Later, a young boy asks her name, at first lying, she comes clean, telling him she is named Adèle. The innocence and unknowing nature of a child appears to be at her level of confiding.
Truffaut has been around the block many times by now, and L’Histoire d’Adèle H. makes its mark as one his finest works. His filmmaking abilities were significant and innovative from the get-go with Les Quatre cents coups (1959). And he has refined his craft over the years, both technically and in the compelling nature of his story-telling. There’s experience, and maturity in his directorial hand here. His cinematic style maintains his diversity in ability, also mercifully avoiding being heavy-handed on the sentimentality of the film, as well as a consistently stern tone.
Cinematographer Nestor Almendros, in a flourishing period, captures the era with such precise vision. Giving full coverage of the magnificent eye for detail, the costumes and the set design are exemplary. The screenplay also manages to cross-over between the languages of English and French, given the characters, not distracting us from the flow of the film as well as offering authentic discourse. The whole picture looks exquisite, even in its (literally) darker, and portrayal of a self-collapse.
Just 19-years-old at the time of shooting, Isabelle Adjani is a revelation – a rightful reputation that would follow her through a superb acting spell in the proceeding years. At the time, she was the youngest ever nominee of the Academy Award for Best Actress. Adjani has a good track record in bold acting displays of the eccentric variety. And warranted, physical beauty is all well and good, but the actress seeps beyond that with such immense dedication to character and exuberance in performance. Her Adèle is a real heartbreaker, angelic and alert, even as the tormented soul disintegrates. Majestic in all its melancholy.