In 1863 Adèle Hugo, the younger daughter of the great French poet and patriot, Victor Hugo, ran away from home on the Isle of Guernsey where her father was living in exile to follow a young English officer, a Lieutenant Pinson, to his new post in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Lieutenant Pinson was probably not a bad sort, not worse than most, but he wasn’t very serious.
It’s thought that the young, inexperienced Adèle had most likely been Lieutenant Pinson’s mistress for a short time on Gurnsey, and it’s known that she wanted desperately to marry him, though her father disapproved. In any case, Lieutenant Pinson was not interested — a circumstance that Adèle was ill-equipped to understand or ever to support.
“The Story of Adèle H.,” François Truffaut’s profoundly beautiful new film, is about Adèle’s journey, taken with measured steps, into a magnificent, isolating obsession, first to frozen Halifax and then, when Lieutenant Pinson is transferred to the West Indies, to Barbados, where Adèle sweeps through the tropical streets and alleys of Bridegtown talking to herself, wearing a heavy black cloak, and looking like some mad, benign witch of the north.
Unable to cope with the truth, and using her imagination and her feelings as carefully as someone writing a piece of fiction, Adèle created another world where she became Lieutenant Pinson’s wife, where love was her religion (and no humiliation too great a sacrifice), and where she kept a coded journal, only recently deciphered. It is this journal that is the basis for Mr. Truffaut’s most severe, most romantic meditation upon love.
“The Story of Adèle H.” was shown last night at Avery Fisher Hall to close the 13th New York Film Festival, which, despite one spectacular disappointment and several others of a lesser order, has been one of the best festivals in recent years. Without question the Truffaut entry was the surprising highlight, even to one who has admired the French director’s films over the years.
One of the fascinations of the Truffaut career is in watching the way he circles and explores different aspects of the same subjects that dominate almost all of his films. However, “The Story of Adèle H.,” impeccably photographed by Nestor Almendros (“The Wild Child”), looks and sounds like no other Truffaut film you’ve ever seen.
The colors are deep, rich and often dark, and the soundtrack is full of the noises that one associates with old costume films produced by M-G-M in its great days—carriages riding over cobblestones, pens scratching across vellum, servants arriving and departing with important messages, bells that tinkle over the doors of bookshops. More important, there is the fine background score by the late Maurice Jaubert (he died in 1940), who composed for Vigo and Clair among others. The film has the manner of a romance but it’s a romance from which all the conventional concerns have been eliminated.
In the single-minded way in which the movie sticks to its subject, “The Story of Adèle H.” reminds one of “The Wild Child.” It’s virtually a one-character film. It contemplates the classic beauty of Adèle, played with extraordinary grace by 20-year-old Isabelle Adjani of the Comédie Française, much as Catherine Deneuve was admired by the camera in “Mississippi Mermaid,” and it appreciates the particularity of women in a fashion that recalls the erratic journey of Catherine to the crematorium in “Jules and Jim.”
“The Story of Adèle H.” is not a psychiatric case history, though all the facts seem to be there if one wants to accept it as such. Rather it’s a poet’s appreciation of the terrifying depth of Adèle’s feelings, which, early on, drive her to lying to her family, to making life miserable for Lieutenant Pinson in Halifax (including canceling his engagement to someone else), to spying on him, happily, as he makes love to another woman. She’s willful and spoiled and, the film understands, impossible to deal with. Yet the film makes us see both the madness and the grandeur of the passion.
It’s this ability to allow us to see a subject from several different angles simultaneously that often proves most unsettling in a Truffaut film. Toughness and compassion get all mixed up. It’s also this talent that separates his films from those of all other directors who are working in the humanist tradition today. “The Story of Adèle H.” is a film that I suspect Jean Renoir would much admire. He understands such things.
2.62GB | 1h 37mn | 960×576 | mkv
Subtitles:English (hardcoded) for French, English (soft) for English