The Story of Adèle H. begins as if in its second act, with Adèle Hugo (Isabelle Adjani) crossing the Atlantic to chase her English lover to Halifax, already mad with desire for the man. But as soon as she makes plans to reunite with her beloved Lieutenant Pinson (Bruce Robinson), it becomes clear that their shared romantic history is one-sided—that the man has no interest in this woman, that whatever fling he had with her meant nothing and marks her only as a nuisance. But Adèle won’t take no for an answer, and her love consumes her, driving her to have her famous father obliviously take out wedding announcements back in Europe and stalking Pinson around the globe. It’s a portrait of ever-present mental illness, and Adèle’s already deluded sense of self collapses well before the film enters its final third.
Period pieces tend to bring out a filmmaker’s austere side, but François Truffaut turns in what may be his most formally adventurous film. Befitting his cinephilia, the director eschews the stuffy asceticism and filmed-play nature of so many works in this genre in favor of a classicism derived from the often modern techniques of Old Hollywood directors. An early shot of Adèle entering a bookshop just as Pinson has slipped out directly references Citizen Kane as Adèle inquires about the man to the bookkeep while the lieutenant can be seen in deep focus outside mounting his carriage and riding off. Shortly thereafter, Truffaut depicts Adèle’s dream of drowning with dissonantly impressionistic superimpositions, a silent-era trick that looks radical in this context. At times, Truffaut even employs some New Wave gimmicks, like a calm fade-out of the bookkeep leaving his shop with a delivery to an abrupt smash cut to him knocking on a door, or even a few jump cuts.
The modernity of the direction creates a tension within the frame that Adjani ignites. Only 19 at the time of filming, the actress manages to slip with disturbing ease into the persona of a woman forever distrusted, even feared, for her sexual openness. Adjani’s eyes always have a look of innocence until you pay attention for even a second, at which point the resolve behind her saucer-wide sclerae manifests. Adjani, like Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert, excels at playing tormented, outcast women not because she projects an image of frailty, but for the strength embodied in a steeled jaw, the ferocity of an outburst, or the accusatory, teasing glint in eyes that makes her a primary target for men who, consciously or subconsciously, cannot bear to see such confidence mustered against their own insecurities.
The ferality of Adjani’s performance is bracing, especially in the context of historical fiction, where even melodrama is buried under neoclassical remove and laced and corseted mannerism. A contemporary critic complained that Adjani had no emotional arc and instead looked insane from the moment she steps off the ship in Halifax’s harbor, but that’s what makes her performance so compelling. The lack of a typical escalation of illness allows Adjani to truly explore madness, how the body withers as the brain diverts all energy to itself to solve problems it can no longer comprehend. The scariest aspect of her work here is that the more detached Adèle becomes from reality, the more certain Adjani plays her. Summarily refused by Pinson (in a cemetery, no less), Adèle composes a letter aloud to her family announcing their marriage with bared teeth and spittle-flecked dictation, as if attempting to infuse her written words with the desperate fantasy of her speech. Reduced to rags and babbling at the end, Adèle still has the benefit of having Adjani’s eyes, which burn with clarity.
Adèle’s story undoubtedly typifies many enduring themes of women’s pictures: the double standard applied to sexual desire, the way only compromised aristocratic women ever experience downward mobility, how artistic men are praised for their volatility while women get committed, and so on. But Adjani’s physicality foregrounds the presence of the protagonist over her symbolic significance. Adèle Hugo may have ended up secreted in an asylum for the good of her father’s reputation, but Adjani won’t let her go down without a fight. In the process, she launched a career of fierce roles, and gave Truffaut his most exciting film since his first.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a marked improvement over previous home-video releases of the film, with stable black levels and excellent color balance. Skin tones are natural, at least until Isabelle Adjani’s face starts to get more and more caked with makeup to drain her of her color. At last, the subtleties of Néstor Almendros’s cinematography can be fully appreciated, the blend of naturalistic lighting and expressionistic color now given their full range. Sound is soft but clear, the mono track naturally frontloaded by dialogue to the film’s benefit, lending even more power to Adèle’s doomed conviction.
An audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman is conversational and engaging, filled with digestible insights and pleased observations. Kirgo in particular lends value to the track by focusing specifically on the sexual themes of the film, as well as the historical details of Adèle’s life. The typically modest Twilight Time disc is rounded out with an isolated score track and a trailer, as well as a booklet with an essay from Kirgo.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray comes with a beautiful transfer and an informative commentary, but its greatest asset is offering the best-to-date home-video presentation of Isabelle Adjani’s transfixing performance.