RUFFAUT IS AT pains at the beginning of his latest film to assure his audience that the events they are seeing are real. The rest of the film is so austere and exemplary that it's hard to believe the truth can be so simple; Adele's passion is so inhuman that it seems to cry out for the reenactment of an affidavit to its reality.
The Story of Adele H., however far from our usual experience, is internally consistent on its own grounds. We've always accepted without question the idea that romantic love is capable of surmounting any obstacle, (or at least trying to). But only in the last half century have people become accustomed to such testimonies to the power of love when one of the partners is utterly unworthy to the idea that it is not who love is for but the love itself that is significant.. Adele throws herself into her passion with all the depth and purity of Juliet or Petrarch--but her lover is no Romeo or Laura, only a devil-may-care womanizing young lieutenant in the 16th Hussars.
Surprisingly, Truffaut chose not to build the film solely out of psychological depth and intensity. The Story of Adele H. alternates between the depth of Adele's passion and the uncomprehending world around her. The audience is not subjected to and unrelieved barrage of profundity. The strange thing about Truffaut's perspective is that the everyday world doesn't destroy Adele, doesn't hamper her, and doesn't seem devalued compared with her own state of mind. Adele destroys herself while the world looks on benignly. With the exception of the callous (though not evil) lieutenant there are only good people in Adele's world--her father is loving, her landlady adoring, and the people she comes into contact with are friendly and far from malicious. Even in her final extremity, alone and dying in a Barbados ghetto, a black woman takes pity on her and nurses her back to health.
Adele's love for Pinson is monomaniacal. There is no question of his being worthy of it; he possesses a certain animal-like attractiveness, especially when encased in the full dress uniform of a Victorian Hussar, but Adele's choice of him as a love-object is simply a given, the story's sine qua non. Once you accept it, the rest of the film follows. And, indeed, the choice has been made before the flim begins--it opens with Adele leaving her home to follow Pinson across the Atlantic to Halifax, (Nova Scotia) already aware of the hopelessness of her love. Truffaut doesn't delve into the really interesting question--the origin of Adele's love--but he doesn't have to. His story is true.
Adele reads aloud from her diaries, and in her diaries creates a fantasy-world in which her love is fulfilled. It was the publishing of these long-forgotten diaries that gave Truffaut the material for this film. For Adele's fate is not that of an ordinary woman--her problems are compounded (and at least partly caused) by her status as the only surviving daughter of Victor Hugo, who enjoyed during his lifetime a world wide reputation as the greatest living poet and champion of liberty. The scene in which Adele's Canadian doctor and her landlady first discover the identity of her father is marvelously funny--marvelous because Truffaut doesn't allow this laughter to prejudice our reactions to Adele's passion when it is next presented. The film goes back and forth between the comfortable bourgeois life of Halifax and Adele's tormented soul, but the comparison is never invidious to either side. Truffaut takes neither easy way out--Adele is God's fool, and not a young girl on a puppy-love crush (she's 30); on the other hand, the sanity of the quotidian world is genuine and attractive.
Truffaut's decision to do without the services of Jean-Pierre Leaud for one film, at least, is triumphantly vindicated. Leaud is a wonderful actor in some respects, but he is sui generis; one could no more imagine him in a role in this movie than Woody Allen could have taken a part in, say, Gone With the Wind. Isabel Adjani conveys all the levels of Adele's emotional life, though I suspect that the film might have been more effective if she looked older, more like the thirty she is supposed to be. Adjani manages to epitomize everything French--to be headstrong, passionate, egoistical, elegant, and sophisticated all at once. Thus one of the film's best angles, the contrast between the French and English psyche, is surprisingly successful. The British are civilized, calm, and capable of love--but not of this mad passion.
Adele's story also turns out to be one of Truffaut's most visually luscious films. Sometimes, Adele is beautiful, though more often she is too concerned with her emotions to care about her looks and her face is tearful and puffy. But the rest of the characters, and all the scenery, is a catalogue of splendor. Truffaut's nineteenth century Halifax is magnificent inside and out, from the lichen-crusted castle battlements to the oak interiors of the houses and the cozy Victorian bookshop. The climax of the film--in Barbados--is more exotic, but here too the emphasis is on beauty, even when the camera moves in crowds of ragged African children and not in the bougainvillea-bedecked inner garden of the Governor-General's home.
This external elegance is paralleled by an elegance of form. Not a shot is wasted. There is no padding, no elongation of emotion to make it seem more profound. Truffaut moves fast, making his points so quickly that there is no time to intellectualize them. Film is as immediate in impact as it should be. The whole burden of Adele's life, complex and important as it is, is summed up in one piece of dialogue. Adele goes to see a British judge whose daughter is engaged to marry the Lieutenant. Adele wants to break up the engagement by hook or crook and tells the judge (who is a good gray man of the world, sympathetic, but without deep reservoirs of passion) that Pinson has seduced and abandoned her.
"Why do you still want him back, then?" the judge asks her, kindly, with only the slightest hint of reproach or mockery.
"Who can control their passions?" Adele answers, with a quick move forward in her chair. There is really nothing else to be said. Every once in a while a film comes along that puts one of these eternal human truths as succinctly and as beautifully as they can be put--The Story of Adele H. is one of them. And, as an anticlimax, I wouldn't hesitate, in a sort of posthumous way, to give it (if it matters) the award for Best Film of 1975.
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