Offering a harrowing but sensitive look at an obscure historical figure, the acclaimed French film The Story of Adele H. is significant as the movie that brought actress Isabelle Adjani her first international notoriety. Although the picture is very much an auteurist statement by director/co-writer François Truffaut—the most consistently accessible filmmaker to emerge from the celebrated French New Wave movement of the ’60s—his gifts were known to world audiences by the time this film was released. Therefore, the discovery of the picture is Adjani’s fearless acting.
Portraying a young woman who throws away social position and wealth in Europe in order to chase a caddish soldier across the Atlantic, Adjani incarnates disturbing qualities of delusion, mania, obsession, and self-destruction. During the course of the movie, we literally watch a soul depart a body as Adjani’s character succumbs to madness. The performance is all the more noteworthy given Adjani’s arresting beauty—since the easier path of appearing in decorative roles was surely available to her, it’s impressive the actress chose challenging work. And because The Story of Adele H. set a template for many later Adjani roles, it’s fascinating to see how good she already was at portraying instability in this, her first major screen role.
The story begins in Halifax, Nova Scotia, circa 1863. A refined but skittish French beauty (Adjani) arrives on a boat from Europe, and then takes up occupancy at a boarding house. She gives each person she meets a different explanation of her identity, eventually settling into the alias of Miss Lewly. In fact, Adele is the daughter of Victor Hugo, the great French literary and political figure. We soon learn that Adele is in love with Lieutenant Pinson (Bruce Robins0n), a British military officer stationed in Halifax. They were involved briefly in Europe, an interlude Adele mistook for the beginning of a lifelong romance.
A callous gambler who moves from one lover to the next without a backward glance, Pinson doesn’t return Adele’s continued affection, so he’s startled to find she crossed an ocean to be with him. Adele’s fixation on Pinson grows stronger each time he spurns her, so even as Adele builds a network of supportive friends in Halifax—and even as Victor Hugo writes heartbreaking letters begging for her return home—Adele disappears into her fantasy of predestined love. She spends hours in her dark room writing a “book” that is actually just the ramblings of a troubled mind, and she humiliates herself by claiming that she’s married to and pregnant by Pinson.
Truffaut tells the story largely in blackout sketches—appropriately, like chapters in a gloomy novel—and he steadily tracks Adele’s transformation to a skeletal wastrel wandering the streets in rags. Some of Truffaut’s storytelling devices feel forced, like the trope of Adele reading her own writing out loud as she works, but in general Truffaut approaches the material unobtrusively, often letting the bottomless mysteries of Adjani’s face fill the screen for long, wordless moments. Furthermore, one could argue that the lack of development in supporting characters is a way of helping viewers see the world through Adele’s myopic vision.
Ultimately, The Story of Adele H. is a cold-blooded exercise, more clinical study than emotional journey, but for those willing to embrace the piece on its own terms—literary, meticulous, psychological—it’s a potent inquiry into the fragility of the human heart.
The Story of Adele H.: RIGHT ON