“The year is 1863. For two years now, the United States has been torn apart by a civil war. Will Great Britain recognize the independence of the southern Confederacy and join in war against the Yankees? Since 1862, British troops have been stationed in the Canadian town of Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, formerly the French Acadia. Halifax is gripped by a kind of fever. The townspeople are busy worrying, smuggling goods and hunting Yankee spies, while at the port the British authorities maintain a close check on European passengers disembarking from the Great Eastern, the huge steamship also known as ‘the floating city.'”
Among the passengers is a young Frenchwoman (Isabelle Adjani). She takes a room at a boarding house, where she introduces herself as Miss Lewly. After settling in, she begins to make inquiries around town about a certain British officer, Lieutenant Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson), though her story is different each time. She tells a notary public that she’s the wife of a Dr. Lenormand from Paris and that her niece was practically engaged to Pinson but lost contact with him; she tells a bookseller that Pinson is her sister’s brother-in-law; she tells the owners of the boarding house that she grew up with Pinson, her village clergyman’s son, and that he’s always been in love with her, without any encouragement on her part. Clearly, all is not as it seems.
Much as the young woman, Adèle, insists that Pinson means nothing to her, that she rarely sees him or that she lost contact with him years ago, it soon emerges that she’s obsessed with him, and she’s followed him across the Atlantic in a desperate bid to win him over. “I did love you, Adèle,” he admits upon visiting her at the boarding house, but when she begs him to tell her that he’ll love her again, he won’t answer. “Even if you don’t love me, let me love you,” she says. “Please, let me love you.” In spite of her pleas, he tells her to return to her family on the island of Guernsey, and he scoffs at her claim that she’s received her parents’ consent to their marriage. “Your father has always despised me. He’ll never give his consent,” he says, having already referred to her father as “the great man” in a sardonic tone. As it turns out, Adèle is keeping another secret from her new acquaintances in Halifax: She’s Victor Hugo’s daughter.
L’Histoire d’Adèle H., or The Story of Adèle H., is based on the life of Adèle Hugo, fifth and youngest child of the man behind such works as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Director François Truffaut first became interested in her story in 1969, when he read about her decoded journal (much of it written in her own invented language), and the following year he began to take steps toward adapting it for the screen, although it would not be filmed and released until 1975; among other issues, he had to obtain permission from Jean Hugo, Adèle’s great-nephew, who was initially reluctant to share this dark chapter in his family’s history with the world. In the film’s press book, Truffaut explained his fascination with the subject:
If I have to sum up in seven points what attracted me in the story of Adèle Hugo, they would be:
- This girl is alone throughout the story;
- She is the daughter of the most celebrated man in the world;
- That man is spoken about but never seen;
- Adèle lives under false identities;
- Driven by a fixed idea, she pursues an unattainable goal;
- Not a phrase, not a gesture of Adèle’s has to do with anything else but her fixed idea;
- Even if she is fighting a losing battle, Adèle shows herself continually active and inventive.
These points are all closely entwined. For example, Adèle’s activity and inventiveness, admirable qualities in and of themselves, are employed exclusively in pursuit of her unattainable goal, her fixed idea. Convinced that she can change Pinson’s mind, no matter how many times he rejects her, she tries everything from sneaking notes into his coat pockets to placing a fake marriage announcement in the newspaper, and at one point she even considers hypnotizing him. As the film goes on and Adèle’s mental health deteriorates, she becomes increasingly desperate. “I gave myself to you. You have to keep me,” she tells Pinson, who replies, “You can’t be serious. I knew women before you. I’ve known women since you, and I’ll know still more.” Adèle, however, is willing to take him on any terms: “But when we’re married, you can have the same freedom. You can see all the women you want.” At times, it almost seems that she’s more interested in becoming Mrs. Pinson than in winning back the man’s love. Pinson is no great catch — aside from his lack of interest in Adèle, he has serious gambling debts, and a colonel suggests that his behavior is not “beyond reproach” — but marrying him would give Adèle a new identity and, better still, a new name.
Adèle’s relationship with her family is at least as significant as her relationship with Pinson, and just as troubled. Her false names and backstories serve a practical purpose at first, but once the people of Halifax discover the truth, it becomes clear that she resents being known as Victor Hugo’s daughter. When kindhearted, well-meaning bookseller Mr. Whistler (Joseph Blatchley) gives her a four-volume edition of Les Misérables as a present, she slams the cover shut in anger. “I thought… Someone said…” he tries to explain. “Someone’s been telling stories, and you listened,” Adèle replies, and then informs him that she’ll be taking her business elsewhere. Later, while writing in her room, she feverishly declares, “I denounce the lying of legal status, the swindle of identity. Born of father unknown. Born of father unknown. I was born of father unknown, of a father completely unknown. But I don’t know my father if I was born of unknown father.” (These lines were not in the original screenplay. Truffaut, “born of unknown father” himself, added them during filming. In this quest for identity, so closely tied to paternity, he recognized a certain kinship with Adèle, despite the fact that she was rejecting her father and he had sought his, even employing a private detective for that purpose.)
She also has major issues regarding her older sister, Léopoldine, who drowned in 1843 at age nineteen while boating with her new husband. “Léopoldine was adored by the whole family,” Adèle tells Mrs. Saunders (Sylvia Marriott), the owner of the boarding house, and her father “nearly went mad with grief” after her death. Moreover, Léopoldine received the kind of romantic devotion that Adèle desires from Pinson: “Her husband did all she could to save her. And when he realized that she was lost, he chose to drown with her.” However, when Mrs. Saunders laments the fact that she never had siblings of her own, Adèle responds, “No, you don’t understand me. You don’t know how lucky you were to be an only child.” It doesn’t appear that Adèle disliked Léopoldine personally — in one scene, she actually holds a private seance to ask for her dead sister’s help in winning over Pinson — but it’s obvious that she has spent her life in Léopoldine’s shadow. She keeps her sister’s jewels with her at all times, and though she insists, “I could never wear them,” there is some blurring between her own identity and that of her sister. More than once, she has vivid nightmares about drowning, nightmares that manifest themselves in tossing and turning and screaming. She also tells a young boy that her name is Léopoldine one day when she goes to pick up her mail; then, after discovering that her parents have given their reluctant consent to her marriage, she returns to the boy and corrects herself: “I lied to you. My real name is Adèle.” Only in marrying Pinson can she become her own person — or so she’s come to believe.
Before leaving her family to follow Pinson, Adèle had written about her plans in her journal: “This incredible thing, that a young girl should step over the ocean, leave the old world for the new world to join her lover, this thing will I accomplish.” Were it not for her fixation on Pinson, the new world might give her the chance she desires to forge her own identity. (It should be noted that, while the majority of the film is set in Canada, it was shot on Guernsey, where Victor Hugo and his family lived during his period of political exile. Truffaut felt that it was a suitably Anglo-Saxon setting that did not require him to travel too far from France.) Adèle is a composer, for one thing, which could help her to make a name for herself. Unfortunately, she must rely on her father to find a publisher for her work and, more unfortunate still, he’s reluctant to do so. “You complain of my slowness in getting your music published,” he writes to her. “For the present, it would be better for you to avoid attracting attention to yourself.” Most unfortunate of all: She only seems to want the money to fund her pursuit of Pinson. Of course, her fixation on Pinson is her sole reason for going to Canada, except perhaps subconsciously. Instead of seizing the opportunities that the new world offers, she remains obsessed with the past. Even apart from Pinson, though, she might never be able to escape her father’s name and towering reputation. As she says to Mrs. Saunders, supposedly as a statement of independence, “I could never give up the name of Miss Hugo.”
Despite her interactions with Pinson and various people around Halifax, Adèle is essentially isolated throughout the film. Separated from her family, compelled to lie, single-minded in her devotion to the man she loves and increasingly out of touch with reality, she lives in her own world. A large portion of her time is spent writing journal entries or letters to Pinson or to her parents, and she frequently commits her words to paper while saying them aloud. This may be more of a stylized cinematic device than anything else — Truffaut had done something similar in 1971’s Two English Girls, and characters throughout his oeuvre are often shown writing, sometimes speaking as they do so — but it fits Adèle quite well. Her words are her own, and hearing them in her own voice may make them, the (often delusional) ideas they express and her own identity more concrete to her.
Truffaut also uses mirrors to comment on Adèle’s psyche. Several times, her reflection is seen, whether she’s intentionally studying herself in a looking glass or just peering through a window. One of the most striking examples occurs during an early scene, in which she writes and narrates a letter to her parents while standing in front of a mirror. Seeing herself may be another means of strengthening her sense of identity, yet there’s also something slightly unreal, intangible — elusive, even — about a reflection. Later on, when she needs to reveal her father’s name to someone, she chooses not to say it out loud; instead, she uses her finger to write it on a dusty mirror, then rubs it away, exposing a murky image of her own face. Try as she might to erase her father, her own identity remains unclear.
In order to focus on Adèle herself and emphasize her isolation, Truffaut tried to avoid the picturesque elements typical of period pieces, including his own Two English Girls: “After that film, which was too picturesque and not rigorous enough, I said to myself that I didn’t want to see a period film with the obligatory café scene, the carriage that arrives at the end of the street and 30 extras in disguise. I therefore reworked The Story of Adèle H. by eliminating everything that was external to Adèle. I no longer wanted to hear about the sun in a period film, or the sky. Adèle became more and more enclosed, claustrophobic: the story of a face.” The resulting film is a powerful, surprising, moving and, above all, sympathetic portrait of a deeply disturbed woman. “The Story of Adèle H., which resembles a piece of music for a single instrument, does not need long preliminary explanations,” Truffaut wrote in the press book. “Let it be said only that, decidedly incapable of making films ‘against,’ I continue to film ‘for.'”
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