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Cinema: Mad Romance

4 minute read
Jay Cocks




Something is amiss. The Story of Adele H. is a lovely, sometimes almost ravishing reflection on lost lives. Of all François Truffaut’s films, it is the most beautiful. In Adele, Truffaut has found a heroine who perfectly embodies and reflects his own intense romanticism. And in the course of her torturous love affair, Truffaut can further chart—as he did in Jules and Jim and The Mississippi Mermaid—the shattering refractions of an obsession. Yet there is something lacking—perspective, for one thing; also, curiously, passion.

Gift of Love. The film’s slightly academic tone may be a reflection of its origins. Six years ago, Truffaut read a biography of Victor Hugo’s younger daughter Adele, which was based largely on her coded diaries. The movie is a scrupulous adaptation and elaboration of Adele’s strange history. Adele, haunted by the death of her older sister Leopoldine—her father’s favorite—followed a British lieutenant, Albert Pinson, to his post in Nova Scotia. She had fallen in love with Pinson during her father’s political exile in Guernsey, and even broke an engagement to be free to marry him. But Pinson left for Canada without her, and without remorse.

Pursuing him to Halifax in 1863, Adele became a woman possessed. At first she claimed to be Pinson’s cousin. Then, finding him, she begged and threatened, even offered him money to pay his debts. She stalked him on rendezvous with other women, sent him a whore for the night as a gift of her love, dressed as a man in evening clothes to track him down at a fancy ball, wrecked his engagement to another woman. During this time she endured hysterical nightmares of Leopoldine’s drowning. She kept Leopoldine’s jewels in a box and wore one of her dresses.

After a while, Adele wrote her father that she and Pinson had been married and became even more desperate to make her fantasy real. She considered hiring a mesmerist to hypnotize Pinson into submission. She swore she was pregnant, and appeared in front of Pinson and his men with a pillow tucked under her dress, holding out handfuls of money. To avoid further scandal, Pinson was posted to Barbados.

Adele followed him. Pinson had married, but now she was beyond caring. Her madness was regenerative, its own reason for being. Adele wandered through the native quarter in Leopoldine’s dress, now torn and filthy. When she saw Pinson again, she looked through him without recognition. She had turned her own life into a perfect, dreadful paradigm of 19th century romanticism.

When John Fowles dealt with similar themes in his superb The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he used the conventions of the 19th century novel to frame the action and comment on it even while the passions of the plot were played full. Although The Story of Adele H. is beautifully rendered—photographed by Nestor Almendors in shaded umbers and tones of wan light—Truffaut has discovered no similar stylistic device. The movie, narrated mostly by Adele, shares her perceptions. Pinson is presented as a thorough cur, nothing more. He always spurns Adele with the same sort of contemptuous indifference, demonstrating no stronger emotion than distaste. Nothing in his character, or the way he is played (by Bruce Robinson, an English actor who has trouble even curling his lip), betrays a glimmer of conflict or uncertainty. He is not a person, just an object of hysteria.

Isabelle Adjani, who is 20, is not—at least yet—an actress of any considerable range. She has a delicate, slightly pampered face that works well for the part, but her great flights of mad passion seem stock. There is no abiding sense, from actress or director, of Adele’s absolute torment. Lacking this, her delirious love becomes pitiful and obsessive, but never tragic.

Jay Cocks

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