Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Victor Hugo’s daughter sails to Nova Scotia to stalk a man who doesn’t love her. When her marriage schemes fail, and she becomes desperate, she disconnects from external reality. Eventually she follows him to Barbados, where she drifts through the island’s cobblestone streets, lost in the wreck of her passion, a beautiful shade. Though “The Story of Adele H.” is one of the great Truffaut pictures, it’s infrequently discussed, possibly because the 21st-century audience doesn’t know how to take its focus on feminine hysteria. (The 21st-century audience favors different hysterias.) Perhaps more than any New Wave director, Truffaut understood Griffith; he especially understood his poetic power. There are moments in “Adele H.” that have Griffith’s unaccountably expressive simplicity. It’d be wrong to call that simplicity crude, because its effects are too delicate, too rich, but there’s a directness to it that brushes up against crudity — that transforms and elevates crudity. The frightfully young Isabelle Adjani (this is the performance that established her reputation), wandering into frame inside a bourgeois grocery store, her unhappy outline rebuking the orderliness of the establishment’s shelves, seems to have swallowed that expressive power and allowed it to pour out of her. It’s insane for an actress to “do Gish,” but Adjani does Gish, and she succeeds at it; there are moments where she’s so committed that we fear for her. We wonder: how will she pull herself back? Though Truffaut never sugarcoats Adele’s obsession, he treats it with extreme sympathy, even when highlighting its absurdity. To him, her commitment has artistic overtones. This is expressed most vividly in the weird moment when Adele slides off the side of her bed to protect her memoirs from the prying hand of a fellow tenement dweller (she does it with her whole body, like a mother protecting an infant). Did Truffaut identify with Adele? Famously, he used a neurotic investment in movies as a springboard to worldwide fame. Nestor Almendros gives the picture a look that’s beautiful and tender in unshowy ways; it envelopes without overpowering. It has the conceptual wholeness of a “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or “Broken Blossoms”: to tease apart its meaning and its aesthetic is to break its spell.