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L'Histoire d'Adèle H.

Picture: Uiversity of Toronto

 So while I'm in Mark Kermode-mode, what about Truffaut's 1975 film, L'Histoire d'Adèle H? The Adèle in question is the younger daughter of Victor Hugo who is traumatised by the death by drowning of her older sister, whom she considers to be her father's favourite. In fact, after the death of Léopoldine and her husband, Victor Hugo had treated his second daughter with increasing coldness. Adèle, played by Isabelle Adjani in her first cinema role, has fallen in love with an English officer, Albert Pinson, who has been posted to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Adèle follows him there, partly also to assert her independence from her father.

When the object of her affection turns her down, she obsessively stalks him and does everything she can to win his love, even though he has made it plain he does not want her. He himself is a rather unreliable and feckless character. Her obsession gradually turns to madness and even makes her sick. When the officer is posted to the West Indies, she follows him there, without even revealing her presence to him. When he follows her and approached her in the street, she does not even recognise him. A local woman takes Adèle under her wing and eventually she returns to Paris.

Adèle's story was recounted in the Diary of Adèle Hugo by Frances Vernor Guille, which Truffaut used to produce a screenplay with Jean Gruault. Adèle's encoded diary only came to light in the 1960's when it was written up by the aforementioned American academic.

It is easy to see what attracted Truffaut to this story. In Jules et Jim, the Jeanne Moreau character Catherine is driven by obsessive love to murder and suicide. In this case, Adèle is driven to madness by her extreme emotional obsession. It is a theme which Truffaut would return to later in his career.

Again, Truffaut uses a true story as his source. He admitted that he was attracted to the story because Adèle was the daughter of the most famous man in the world at that time. Characters who are also cut off emotionally from society also appeal to him.

Don Allen in Finally Truffaut writes:

"Adèle's resistance finds expression in the most romantic, intransigent, absolute and hopless love, which leads her through scandal and humiliation into madness."

Casting Isabelle Adjani was a risk, but she is beautiful and tormented, loved by the camera. The film is all about her, with the rest of the (mainly English) cast secondary. The narrative is, once again, careful, largely undramatic and atmospheric. There is a good sense of the isolation and hostility of the Canadian environment, from the opening night-time scene as she arrives in Halifax by boat. (Most of the film was shot in Guernesey, since an English look was needed.) The film also looks good thanks to the cinematography of Nestor Almendros.

Truffaut makes a slightly gratuitous, Hitchcockian appearance as an English officer whom Adèle mistakes for her would-be lover.

Although very watchable and atmospheric, based on a single viewing, this is not one of my Truffaut favourites. I do not find the subject matter especially fascinating. It is frustrating to see the Adjani character wasting her life and making herself ill when she could have been happy with the local bookshop owner who clearly cares for her. It is not clear why Adèle loves Pinson and I wonder how many people in life allow their emotional obsession to dominate themselves so much. Adjani is excellent, but the dialogue of the rest of the cast seems rather stilted. Perhaps Truffaut's poor grasp of English was not up to getting the best from his English performers.

By the way, why Adèle H? Truffaut said that, although Victor Hugo was well known, many people go to watch a film without much prior knowledge, and since her relationship with Victor Hugo is only revealed half way throught he movie, he thought it better not to advertise the fact in the title.


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