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The Story of Adèle H. was released one year after John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, and despite huge differences in style, tone and setting, the two have a lot in common. Mostly, they have a similar focus, centering on intensely watchable feminist figureheads, whose irrational response to an irrational situation dictates the film’s entire action. Both Mabel Longhetti of A Woman and Adèle Hugo of Adèle H. are clearly at least somewhat out of their minds, but the unintentional lucidity of madness provides them with holy-fool level insight, allowing them to cast light on inherently flawed elements of society.

Truffaut was never exactly a feminist director, but the insistently humanist fairness he grants to all his characters leaves space for a lot of realistically drafted female characters, women whose agency and power clearly outpaces that of the men in their lives. Men are sometimes heroes in his films, sometimes scoundrels, sometimes buffoons, but their behavior is generally reflected off the equally balanced depiction of the women around them, one of the most pragmatic tendencies in an oeuvre otherwise defined by an firmly fabulist outlook.

In A Woman Under the Influence, Gena Rowlands’ protagonist is nudged into madness by the demands of motherhood, then condemned for her behavior. Meanwhile her freewheeling, equally crazy husband, who’s not saddled with any expectations of appropriate behavior, is allowed to run wild, getting into fights and forcing beer on his children. Adèle (Isabella Adjani), the daughter of novelist Victor Hugo, is equally maligned, driven into mania by the promise of marriage, which when snatched away leaves her shattered. The film follows her descent into an increasingly frenzied state, as she follows Lieutenant Pinson (Bruce Robinson), a British soldier, from her home on Guernsey to his next assignment in Nova Scotia. Pinson spurns her, and Adèle spends the rest of the movie simultaneously cultivating a fictional reality, through letters to her parents and comments to strangers, and endlessly harassing the soldier.

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We never get an exact idea of what happened between them, but there are clear indications that Pinson is something of a scoundrel, who made empty promises, stole the girl’s virginity and left her broken and deceived. The nature of Adèle and Pinson’s relationship is important because it helps to pinpoint the spot where her mania ends and society’s restrictions begin. But Truffaut keeps this issue mysterious: Pinson is cagey, and Adèle is so unstable that it’s impossible to believe anything she says. This forces us to focus on the character’s unraveling with only scant hints as to what might have made her behave this way. The fact that she appears in and dominates every scene in the film pushes the mystery even further.

The concept of Adèle as a feminist figure works because, in this style of presentation, her deepening madness inevitably forces audiences to consider what may have caused it. She is desperately grasping for something that she cannot attain, hemmed in by the presence of two male figures. We never see Victor Hugo in the film, but his reputation and presence weigh heavily on everything that occurs within. His initial rejection of Pinson, the solder suggests, may have driven him away. A fraud hypnotist, set to bilk the girl, demurs when he learns her father’s identity. Finally, the former slave who rescues Adèle in Barbados cites the indirect help she’d received from the famous Hugo, whose abolitionist stance helped free her from bondage. These circumstances, paired with the endless pursuit of Pinson on the other end, serve to point out how imprisoned she actually is.

Adèle may pursue marriage with a crazed, single-minded devotion, but considering the stifling life available to a woman in the 1860s, what else is there for her to pursue? There are hints that she was promised in marriage to a friend of her father’s, and in that context her flight to Nova Scotia and ultimate breakdown make for a heartbreaking tragedy, escaping one overbearing male figure only to be rebuffed by another, with no societal structure in place to allow her to live on her own. That The Story of Adèle H. is, like The Wild Child, largely based in fact, only serves to deepen the poignancy of the sad events it recalls.

by Jesse Cataldo

See Also: Oeuvre- Truffaut: Day for Night

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