Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 84 (A-)
Francois Truffaut so loved making The Wild Child that he resolved to tackle another true story again. The director stumbled upon the story of Adele Hugo, the troubled daughter of writer Victor Hugo, driven mad by love. Truffaut struggled for years to find the right actress for the part before meeting 19-year-old Isabelle Adjani, who would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The film is another period piece from Truffaut, but unlike the lifeless Two English Girls, The Story of Adele H. has the passion and deep sadness required to make the film work. The result is one of the most tragic films Truffaut ever made.
Adele (Adjani) has traveled from France to Halifax, England in order to follow British military officer Lieutenant Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson). Adele has fallen madly in love with Pinson, but her family disapproves and Pinson does not return her affection. Nevertheless, Adele is obsessed, and she travels under an assumed name of Miss Lewly to avoid attention (as Victor Hugo is the most famous man in Europe at this point). Adele receives attention and affection from most everyone in Halifax, but as Albert spurns her, she is driven to the point of pennilessness and schizophrenia.
The film wouldn’t work without the remarkable work of Adjani, who projects a combination of worldliness and desperation required for the painfully sad narrative. Adele has inherited her father’s gift for poetic, gorgeous writing, which we often hear through her diary and letters, but she channels her passion into a unrequited love that dooms her. Truffaut, for his part, matches Adjani beat-for-beat with a tone that combines melodrama and outright horror- Adele is a deeply sympathetic character, but she’s also clearly unbalanced, as shown in her horrifying dreams of her sister drowning, shown superimposed over Adele tossing and turning violently in bed. Truffaut makes the most out of Adjani’s expressive, mournful face in smart close-ups, while his fluid, Renoir-like camera work goes well with a Hitchcockian approach to melodrama.
Adele is another outcast from society in Truffaut’s work, but here it is by her own hand rather than by a chance she never had. She is a woman of privilege and great artistic talent, but she splits from her parents without a word of notice and pursues an unhealthy obsession that ostracizes her from society. The people of Halifax are warm and welcoming, but she is deeply secretive, holding her landlady and other admirers on the outside- her anger when a warm and clearly lovestruck bookstore owner reveals his knowledge of her true identity is painful. As Adele sets out to ruin Albert after he rejects her one too many times, her destructive behavior is ultimately too much for the world to bear, and she is cast out into the streets.
Yet while Adele’s undoing is ultimately her own fault, Truffaut largely sympathizes her. He admires her talent as a writer, her poetic language (“I have the religion of love…I do not give my body without my soul or my soul without my body”), and her unbridled passion, unhealthy as it may be. Adele is perfectly aware of how unhealthy her love is- she just can’t help it. Truffaut crafts both a gorgeous depiction of how emotion drives us mad and a crafty portrayal of great artists, both those committed to social change (Victor Hugo, whose daughter Adele would fit right in with his troubled characters) and those committed to love. The film stumbles a bit in a stilted scene that praises the virtue of Victor Hugo, but it more than makes up for it with its melancholy ending that ties father and daughter together. The whole world mourned Victor, he of a noble public cause. Where is the mourning for Adele, when her personal cause is equally relatable?