Go see Isabelle Adjani play Adèle Hugo in ‘L’histoire d’Adèle H’ by Francois Truffaut (1975), one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen in a while. It tells the real life story of the second daughter of Victor Hugo whose obsessive unrequited love for a naval officer brings her to behaviour totally unsuitable to a young lady at the end of the 19th century, and ultimately to madness. I’ve been thinking about this film now for over a week because of how unusual the story is – totally feminist and totally submissive at the same time; a scandalous taboo, female obsessive love; and the haunting acting skills of 19-year old star-bound Isabelle Adjani.
So it’s about 1870. While the world famous writer Victor Hugo lives in exile at Guernsey during the Bonaparte revival in France, his 20-year old daughter elopes to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Adele knows no one in the new world, only the womanising Lt Pinson whom she is determined to marry. The bourgeois girl has the admirable survival skill to secretly set up a new life in the new world. Meanwhile Pinson does not want to have anything to do with her. She persists, stalking him, even by pretending to carry his child, and announcing their marriage in the French press.
Her father begs her to come home before her mother dies, yet Adèle is exasperatingly convinced that it is her destiny to be wherever he is. She writes obsessive romantic entries in her diary about the violent beauty of a true love that must be followed even though he is unworthy. Her money runs out, she moves to a poor house and her appearance and state of mind rapidly fall apart.
When the officer’s regiment is moved to Barbados, she goes as well. Emaciated, she wanders the African quarter, her mind so far devoured by love that she does not even recognise the officer. A newly liberated slave mama nurses her, and writes to Victor Hugo that she will bring his daughter home. Adèle will spend the rest of her long life gardening in a mental asylum.
Ok, now I’ve spoilt the plot, but that won’t make the film less intriguing. What does it take for a girl in that time to undertake such a journey and live her life on such as scale? She was supposed to be a domestically kept creature, not venture out to the colonies on her own…And while she’s very capable in setting up a life of her own, it’s not independence that drives her but single-minded self-destructive fantasy. Why does she direct the force of her conviction and willpower to such a pointless, yet grandly romantic aim? Is she too susceptible to the romantic ideas of the time, her character lending her no down to earth protection to torment? Or is she trapped in circumstances where her great mind can only be used destructively rather than creatively? There is no real answer in the film other than that she is haunted by the memory of her older sister, the favourite of her parents, who drowned after her coach tipped off a bridge.