Though Americans often think of his novels (and the musical based upon one novel), Victor Hugo is better known in his native France as a poet. During his lifetime, he was also a politician and his writings against the death penalty helped abolish the act in many places. His politics also got him into a great deal of trouble as he became exiled from France after Napoleon III seized power and declared himself emperor. Hugo had five children - one died in infancy, the second drowned at 19, his two boys were both well-loved artists, and his daughter, Adèle, like so many daughters before her and since, was nothing but heartache.
I give you this small history lesson to set up François Truffaut’s film The Story of Adèle H. It is about Hugo’s daughter (Isabelle Adjani) and the time she spent in Halifax desperately in (unrequited) love with a British officer Lieutenant Pinson (Bruce Robinson).
Though the film does not make it explicit, the real Adèle was suffering from schizophrenia which helped create this romantic obsession. The film begins with Adèle arriving in Halifax by boat. At first, we are unsure who she is or what her purpose is. She calls herself Miss Lewly and has varying accounts as to what she is doing in town.
She makes various inquiries into Lieutenant Pinson’s whereabouts, eventually finding him. At once, she pronounces her undying love for him. He is kind but rebuffs her with explanations that they cannot be together for her father never liked him and they could not possibly live on his salary. Later, when she produces letters from her father giving them his blessing and a promise of funds, he lets her know that he no longer loves her and that they will not be together.
This only makes her more obsessive, and we see her spying on him and dressing as a man so she can accost him at parties, etc. Eventually she blackmails him, for in the past they did have an illicit affair, and while it was meaningless to him, she can use it to demean his character and damage his career.
Throughout all of this, she receives letters from her father filled with great concern for her and he begs her to return to him in exile. Other times, we see her having horrible nightmares about drowning her sister as she writhes in bed. More and more, she slips into madness, becoming completely unhinged while all those around her are unable to help.
All of this is handled with Truffaut’s adept hand. It's a dark, moody sort of film. We see Adèle’s madness and it startles us, but we are always on the outside. We never really get her perspective. We are outside observers realizing over the course of the film just how far gone she really is.
Adjani is remarkable. Her beauty is stunning, distracting really, as at first we think she perhaps has been wronged. We wonder how anyone could leave such a beautiful creature. But slowly we see the madness creep in and by the end she has completely transformed herself.
This MGM Limited Edition Collection presentation of The Story of Adele H is bare bones. There are no special features. It is in French with optional English or French subtitles. The video and audio are decent and easily viewed but not anywhere near perfect. It is such a wonderful film by a remarkable director that it really does need some special treatment at some point. Until then though, it is well worth seeking out and watching.