Isabelle Adjani Startles in 'The Story of Adele H'

by Imran Khan

11 June 2015

Delivering an astonishing performance in Francois Truffaut's story of madness and obsession, Isabelle Adjani proves herself an actress of ingenuity and depth.
 
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The Story of Adele H

Director: Francis Truffaut
Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Bruce Robinson, Sylvia Marriott

Isabelle Adjani had already been working the film circuit from the time she was 15 years of age. But it wasn’t until her startling performance in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H (1975) that she truly revealed the depths of her talents. At the tender age of 19, Adjani presented a damaged young woman on the brink of madness with an engaging sense of resolve. Truffaut had once said famously of her performance, “She acts as though as her life depended on it.”

Inspired by the true-life events of Adele Hugo, daughter of renowned French writer Victor, The Story of Adele H follows Adjani in the titular role as she leaves France for Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the tail of her former lover of whom she is madly obsessed with. Adele has left her family under false pretences, telling them that she and her lover, Albert Pinson (a British officer stationed in Canada), plan on getting married soon. They have no idea that Adele’s lover, utterly exasperated by the young woman’s constant dogging of him, simply wishes for her to disappear. Unfortunately for him, Adele refuses to give up, spying on his every move and conceiving of devious ways to keep them together. She is also distressed by the recurring nightmares of her drowned sister, who seems to haunt over the proceedings as a prophecy of doom.

Truffaut, normally associated with France’s nouvelle vague (New Wave) movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, turns in what could be his most conventional effort here. There are only just a few of the stylish tricks common of nouvelle vague to be seen here; in the way of linear-challenging techniques and fancy editing work, there isn’t much. The Story of Adele H follows a fairly subdued line of narrative which faithfully tracks the events in Adele’s life with disciplined chronology. The power of the film, something Truffaut clearly understood from the onset of filming, rests entirely in the performance of Adjani. He lets the her run with the character as far as she can, realizing fully that Adjani intends to destroy Adele with the kind of passion, heat and fortitude that would earn the actress an Oscar nomination for her role in this film.

While Adele is a clear victim of her own madness here, she isn’t feeble. We watch her proceed with selfish indignation as she plots to win Pinson back; her desperate attempts reveal a young woman who is as resourceful as she is nearsighted in her quest for requited love. Adele’s madness is played out against the serene and frosty backdrop of a Canadian winter; the expertly shot film is resplendent with the deeply rich, muted hues of Néstor Almendros’ cinematography. This rendering of a tranquil and idyllic landscape presents Adele’s world as an indifferent and dispassionate place, a wrecking ground for the uncontrollable emotions of a young woman on the verge of a breakdown.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of The Story of Adele H is quite a revelation in its restoration of visuals and sound. While the film certainly shows its age (there are moments of heavy grain), the colour saturations have finally been perfected. Previous DVD releases offered a muddily-tinted picture with the finer details obscured in shadows. The wash of colours on Twilight Time’s release is thick and rich, with none of the bleeding that normally compromises the more subtle visual information. The images are crisp and clear.

The Blu-ray features a commentary track by two film historians who discuss the film thoughtfully and informatively. Also included with the Blu-ray are liner notes that round out the package handsomely. The film is both French and English language, with subtitles.

With The Story of Adele H, Truffaut delivers a film with an already answered question. From the start, we are meant to recognize the dissenting pathways of which the heroine shall take and the obvious and ultimate self-destruction foreseeable long before the film’s end. There are no ways out here, just the slow-drawing close of a net in which we witness the flailing of a desperate, helpless victim. This means that the film belongs entirely to Adjani. Her first of two Oscar nominations (the other for a sensational lead performance in Camille Claudel) rightfully alerted the world to an incredible talent, one that would gain prominence throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s until a semi-retirement during the ‘90s.

Adjani has often been cited as one of the most beautiful women in cinema (sure enough, her elegant and handsome features in this film are easy on the eyes). But with her beauty comes the proficiency of drama and deliverance; her skill in conveying humanity and sincere passion runs acres deep. It gives Adjani the rare and enviable status of a movie star and a film actress. 

The Story of Adele H

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