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The Story of Adele H. (François Truffaut) 1975


    Based on the writings of Adele, the daughter of the great French writer Victor Hugo, François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. is gifted with an unusual sense of intelligence. That the film is based on actual events is not allowed to escape past the audience. A series of maps and titles at the start of the film explain the historical context that this story takes place in. The treatment of this most unusual tale of romantic obsession is always restrained enough to keep it from feeling like a conventional movie melodrama. Few scenes escalate into histrionics, and most are defensible because the events in them have been taken from existing documentation. Adele’s diary, her correspondence with her father, military logs, and a most important newspaper announcement are the only fragments of these lives’ events, but they are enough, it seems to gather a reasonable understanding of these people. Isabelle Adjani, who plays Adele in a remarkable, Oscar-nominated performance, remains enough of a clean slate that Truffaut can’t be accused of attempting to alter history to suit his dramatic purposes. Still, the rare glimpses that we get into her psyche tell us enough about her feelings that we stay compelled. Adjani is so uncommonly pretty and smart at the start of the film that her degeneration manages to catch us completely off guard. She doesn't just have a break down: she disintegrates, and since she's in nearly every shot of the film, we have no choice but to follow her.


    As I previously noted, The Story of Adele H. is remarkably intelligent. Most scenes affect the audience in numerous ways. We see the pathos in Adele’s affections, but there is also a sense of comedy in them since her repressed life has resulted in a hunger so insatiable that it nearly destroys her. We note that the obsession that consumes Adele seems to be only satisfied by her humiliation, and there’s something perversely laughable and pathetic about her bullheadedness, especially considering her social status. She finds her inability to order her lover around inconceivable, even as it drives her closer toward him. Still, the audience’s ability to analyze Adele in a way that she herself cannot doesn’t preclude our sympathy toward her, though the film’s refusal to simplify itself does keep it even from taking off completely as either a farce or a romance. Sometimes you wish it would just let us cry for the girl, but emotional easiness such as that would probably make it too conventional to be worth our interest. Since the movie never does such a thing, Truffaut’s work in Adele is grudgingly above reproach. It has taken one of the most clichéd, mind-numbing genres and made something new and exciting out of it. 

* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman