This week, the New York Film Critics Circle gives a special award to Molly Haskell, one of America’s foremost film scholars and a pioneering feminist critic. Haskell, author of the essential study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies and other books (including a recent one on Steven Spielberg), wrote for the Village Voice throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. As a tribute to her, all this week we are featuring selections from our archives. (You can read our earlier post of her review of Gator here.) Here is her 1975 review of Francois Truffaut’s drama The Story of Adele H.
“The Story of Adele H” Is a Tribute to an Experience
By Molly Haskell
October 27, 1975
The Story of Adele H, about the younger daughter of Victor Hugo, is a remarkable love story directed by Francois Truffaut. It is the recreation of a passion, but the passion entertained by this particular woman in love, played with frightening self-possession by Isabelle Adjani of the Comedie Francaise, is seen not as desire or ecstasy, or with even a glimpse of mutuality, but as a dark and one-sided obsession, a pursuit remorselessly undertaken, with the female stalking the male, almost literally, to the ends of the earth. It was an appropriate ending to the New York Film Festival in that, like so many of the year’s films, its appeal was to the intelligence rather than to the emotions, in that Truffaut asks us to understand Adele’s situation without identifying directly. This approach seems more logical in a Brechtian parable like The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum than in a love story, which is what makes the Truffaut film so fascinating, but ultimately more as a tribute to an experience than as an experience in itself.
Adele Hugo, according to journals she left that were recently discovered, decoded, and edited into a biography by Professor Frances Guille of Wooster College, and which served as the basis for the film, went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1863 in pursuit of an English officer with whom she had had a fling, intending to force him to marry her. Although talented and intelligent, she was, by all accounts, the neglected child overshadowed not only by her illustrious father, but by his preferred daughter, Leopoldine, the victim of a drowning accident prior to Adele’s departure. Truffaut’s film begins with Adele’s arrival in Nova Scotia. Under an assumed name she puts up at a boarding house and proceeds to pass her time writing voluminous diaries and imploring, annoying, and spying on her ex-lover. She follows him when he is transferred to Barbados where, bedraggled and demented, she is nursed by a native woman and taken back to France, to pass the rest of her days in an asylum.
We never see Leopoldine in the film, except in the images of drowning (in which — ultimate love-sacrifice — her husband, unable to save her, had jumped in after and drowned) which haunt her sister’s sleep. Nor do we see her father, only feel his presence overbearingly in every reasonable letter to his daughter, a presence that extends to, and is expressed by, the dark Victorian interiors and somber lighting of Nestor Almendros’s cinematography, which give way finally to the blazing sunlight and madness of Barbados. A French audience, for whom Leopoldine is a familiar name and the figure of Hugo is almost as oppressive as it is for Adele, would see that Adele’s journey to the “new” world, in search of a “new” name, is also the search of a woman — a woman emblematic in the extreme of a woman’s inherited disadvantages — for something else: for an identity apart from her father. The irony is that her failure to secure this adoptive identity becomes her “success,” as she devotes herself to the passion that is her true identity. And thus does Truffaut, in rendering explicit the insight that has lain beneath the surface of many a “woman’s film” (Back Street, Only Yesterday, and — most brilliant — Ophuls’s Letter From an Unknown Woman and Madame De), make the “woman’s film” to end all “women’s films.”
In all of these, a woman in love defies social decorum and propriety, rejects the normal woman’s destiny in marriage and family, lives as an outcast — in sin or in violation of duty — and finally goes beyond even the beloved himself in embracing an emotion that is religious, total, self-defining, based on denial rather than fulfillment, and, by communing with no mortal being, can end only in martyrdom and death. What the world (and most feminists) see as a woman “throwing her love away” on an unworthy man is in fact a woman throwing away the world and all dependencies for a love radically created by her, preparing herself, kamikaze-style, for immolation on its altar. This dark and terrifying side of love, never quite acknowledged in most Hollywood films, and made tragic in Ophuls, becomes the exclusive tonality in The Story of Adele H. In thus intellectualizing the etiology of an obsession, Truffaut has made palatable to critics a theme that would otherwise be regarded as soap opera, but he has altered the premise in the process.
For instance, Adele’s British officer, an attractively callow man played by Bruce Robinson, is a negligible figure — a handsome wastrel unable to cope with a passion he senses is not real love but rather a complexly motivated obsession which is an end in itself. In the old woman’s films, the lovers — played by such leading men as John Boles, George Brent, Louis Jourdan, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica — not only played a more active part in the drama of attraction, but seduced the audience into an understanding of how such a passion could evolve. They, too, like Lieutenant Pinson, were “pretexts,” but this came as a gradual revelation, not as a premise.
By beginning with this assumption, by opening in darkness and doom of an obsession analytically understood and predictable, the Truffaut film becomes a meditation on the “woman’s film” rather than a direct experience, and skirts the depths and heights of the great tragedies of obsession. In Vertigo and Madame De, there is a progression from normal to abnormal, a sense of options available to, and rejected by, the main character, so that his/her choice, however inevitable it appears in retrospect, precipitates the fall and removes him from a society he had enjoyed. But Adele, belonging to that tribe of madmen, gamblers, outlaws that so fascinate the French but are perhaps better described in the nondramatic media of prose (I think of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman and its peculiar adaptation to the stage), embraces her martyrdom from the beginning. There is no dramatic conflict.
Danielle Darrieux’s gaunt martyr in Madame De is preceded by an ecstatic woman, in love for the first time, and she is preceded by a charmingly vain society woman. But Adjani’s secretive Adele begins, like Truffaut’s “wild child,” with whom she has more in common, as an outsider, intersecting with society only to seek a human form for her obsession.
Truffaut understands, as Ophuls understood in Madame De and Hitchcock in Vertigo (with the interesting difference that the male obsession is fixated on the idealized image of a woman, while the woman’s is in the emotion itself), that such an obsession is not only magnificent but terrible, not only sublime, but selfish and cruel. But it was Hitchcock and Ophuls who gave us, in the most deeply sympathetic “rejected lovers” ever created on the screen (Bel Geddes in Vertigo and Boyer in Madame De), the true measure of this cruelty. This is what makes these films, for me, the greatest ever made, their sense of the wholeness that is forfeited or lost by the mad and by those who would defy society and live at its edge. They see, with ambivalence, the wholeness that is left behind, but they also see, with ambivalence, the obsession to which art and love and madness can lead. Loss and gain, the components of paradox, are simultaneously present in the vertiginous daring of their style, whereas Truffaut’s “safe” devotion to the truth has the effect of constantly justifying Adele’s actions, redeeming them with gravity, without ever plunging her into the abyss of romantic folly and cruelty that might, paradoxically, have given her the dimensions of greatness.