There is no worse tragedy than unrequited love, which the great director François Truffaut narrates perfectly in this 1975 movie, The Story of Adele H.
This tragic female epic takes place in the mid-1800s, when the second daughter of the famous French writer Victor Hugo, Adele, meets and falls in love with British Lieutenant Albert Pinson.
In an attempt to win back the soldier’s heart, she travels from her home in Guernsey to Halifax, Nova Scotia; only to find that he has moved on and is no longer interested in her.
However, Adèle refuses to give up and follows him to various cities across Canada and the United States, expending large sums of money on hotel stays.
Of course, her father is apprehensive about her, even considering the debts she is accumulating, yet he cannot find any argument to persuade her to give up.
To maintain the illusion of the family about her happy life, she goes so far as to forge letters pretending to be Pinson and fabricate stories about where she is and what she is doing.
Overwhelmed by the vortex of her obsession, she even starts writing letters to herself at one point, again pretending they are from Pinson.
Meanwhile, Adèle follows and watches him from afar whenever she can as the man woos another woman and goes about a new life, but it all ends when he notices her in Philadelphia.
After a tremendous quarrel in a hotel lobby, the man establishes his categorical refusal to love her one last time, pushing her over the ultimate edge of madness.
At that point, her father tries to go to America to save her, still loving her despite everything, but no one can be saved from himself.
A movie consumed by love for cinema
For anyone who has ever wondered what the Nouvelle vague was, François Truffaut was a crucial player in this cinematic movement initiated in the 1950s, along with other holy giants such as Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer or Claude Chabrol, to name a few.
The director loved a more experimental approach than the standards of classic French cinema, bringing previously forbidden topics such as sexuality, politics, and popular culture into his stories.
Quickly becoming known for his ability to create emotionally profound and authentic movies, The Story of Adele H is one of his most powerful period portraits of the 1800s and was enthusiastically received by audiences, garnering good box office at home and abroad in 1975.
Equally generous with compliments were the critics, cheering Truffaut at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and praising the unique and enthralling atmosphere of this crazy old-time romance.
Even more astounding was the performance of the young Isabelle Adjani in the leading role, even winning the Best Actress award of the entire festival.
Her natural and extraordinary talent further enhanced the emotionally touching script, serving an intriguing direction that utilizes the hand-held camera to create a sense of immediacy and realism, particularly during the scenes in which Adèle follows Pinson.
Truffaut uses natural light to create an authentic atmosphere blended perfectly with the music by Maurice Jaubert, featuring a melancholy and dramatic mood that fits perfectly with the story’s inevitable tragedy.
Equally innovative were the frequent close-ups to highlight characters’ expressions and emotions, altering with long close-ups to create an uneasy sense of continuity and selective focus to emphasize some character or object in the center of the frame.
This attention to detail and formal experimentation, combined with great care for the emotional experience of the characters, keep this movie modern even after decades.
The aftermath of love madness
Such a human and passionate story required a cast up to the task, able to embrace the challenge and offer a wide range of emotions and considerable psychological complexity.
Although still a debutant then, Isabelle Adjani quickly became an acclaimed actress on the French movie scene, and her performance in The Story of Adèle H in 1975 is one of the best of her career.
On her young and beautiful face, we can see all the colors of the rainbow of a woman’s heart, such as love, passion, obsession, and jealousy, finally reaching anger and despair.
Despite the absolute madness, Adjani gets us to understand the character’s motivations and emotions with subtle and authentic gestures, looks, and imperceptible natural and innocent swaying movements.
Quite different, however, is the performance of Bruce Robinson, a cynical and disenchanted soldier who does not believe in love and regards Adèle’s passion as a useless waste of time.
We never know precisely how Pinson feels about Adèle, whether it is true that he feels nothing or whether he is hiding his feelings, and this ambiguity contributes to making the character at once fascinating and frustrating.
Robinson‘s acting perfectly complements Isabelle Adjani‘s, creating an emotional tension between these characters, bringing out the obsession with this unrequited love even more violently.
This contrast worsens when a new woman comes into the scene, played by Sylvia Marriott, who still delivers an interesting (and even funny) character despite being relatively marginal in the main plot.
Finally, let’s not forget Victor Hugo, the famous French writer and Adèle’s father here portrayed by the actor Joseph Blatchley, a domineering man with a strong sense of his importance who yet at the same time can show affection for his daughter when she needs it.