Une Femme Sauvage

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Early in François Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adèle H., before Adèle has met up with the young lieutenant she followed from Guernsey to Halifax, she is seen walking down a street near the military garrison, moving east to west, against the flow of pedestrian traffic (made up almost entirely of men in uniform). Though we are scarcely one reel into the film, we already know her to be, if not a liar, at least an obsessive fictionalizer, and a follower of fancy rather than fact. We sense, too, that this Lieutenant Albert Pinson whom we have not yet seen is not quite the devoted lover she has made him out to be, and that her passion for him may well be a one-way street.

A man in an officer’s cape whips by her; she whirls and cries out; he turns, and the two come face to face at center screen. The man is François Truffaut. Her face immediately tells us her error: yet she keeps looking, for longer than would seem necessary, and the officer looks back. Not a word is spoken, but a great deal more is going on in this shot than a simple case of mistaken identity.

François Truffaut and Isabelle Adjani

In the first place, the mistake is rather improbable, in light of the Albert Pinson we meet later; for this officer is darkhaired, short, and easily old enough to be the father of Adèle’s tall, blond lieutenant. The looks, in fact, which pass between the woman and the officer on the street convey not so much the embarrassment of mistaken identity as a moment of recognition. The scene primes us for that later scene, near the very end of the film, in which Adèle walks past the real Lieutenant Pinson in Barbados without a glimmer of recognition: How complete has been the introversion of romantic fantasy in the mind of this woman who once recognized a little of her lover in nearly every man, and now fails to recognize him even in himself!

But in the chance meeting of Adèle and the older officer in Halifax, a curious sense of déjà-vu, or perhaps presque-vu, hangs over the whole scene—a feeling that, for me, reaches beyond the limits of the film itself to find its proper articulation. For one thing, we are strongly aware of actress Isabelle Adjani having come, quite unexpectedly, face to face with her own director, on camera, in the middle of a scene. And that long, penetrating look Truffaut gives her, a look of curiosity, even of study, recalls to me the director’s own characterization of the 18th-century physician-psychologist Dr. Jean Itard, father-figure and civilizing influence in L’Enfant sauvage (1970). We have already sensed the manic passion seething just beneath the surface of Adèle’s public personality; and in this moment a recollection of that earlier film suggests that perhaps she, too, is in need of the firm, calm hand of this Classical personality.

From there, the connection begins to extend, to justify itself. Both L’Enfant sauvage and L’Histoire d’Adèle H. are original screenplays based on the private, later-published notes and papers of little-known figures from French history. Each deals with a misfit, at odds with society, who briefly approaches civilization and conformity, but who is destined to live out most of an uneventful life in confinement and anonymity.

More significantly, both films are dominated by a strong father-figure, the one (Itard) physically present in nearly every scene, the other (Victor Hugo) never seen, but almost palpably ubiquitous. In this last regard, the fact that the officer played by Truffaut in L’Histoire d’Adèle H. is old enough to be her father may be not an improbable adjunct to, but precisely the point of, that disorienting chance encounter in the streets of Halifax.

The Shadow of an Unforgotten Ancestor

The postulate of L’Histoire d’Adèle H. is that Adèle’s father—or at least his reputation—is largely to blame for her dissolution. On the film’s terms, the evidence is there: Hugo’s initial refusal, on Guernsey, to allow the marriage of Adèle and Albert has been the material cause of Adèle’s obsession with Pinson and of her escape from Guernsey to Halifax. But why go to such great lengths to cross her father’s wishes, and for the sake of a passionate love that is profound in her fantasy only, and is for the most part unrequited?

The answer lies in Truffaut’s characterization of Adèle as an intensely creative personality whose expressive energies have been frustrated. She writes incessantly, writes down every occurrence, every thought, every fantasy, until wish and reality are no longer distinct but share a common truth value, the measure of which is her own paper and ink. She writes diaries, memoirs, letters, love notes, and anonymous missives, which she slips into the pockets of the unsuspecting Albert’s regimental tunic. In her unpublished way, she must have been at least as prolific as her celebrated father.

The bulk of her writing—her memoir—she kept always with her, and in later years composed in code, emphasizing further the introversion of her creative energy. Like her memoir, her public life was also in code. In the film she lies, deceives, and fabricates, often with no practical purpose for doing so. Her lying is, among other things, a perversion of the creative energy whose constructive expression is stifled in her by the shadow of her father’s greatness. Her efforts to excel in an area untouched by his genius and reputation—music—have also been confounded by the exiled Hugo’s unwillingness to publish the manuscripts of Adèle’s compositions for fear of giving his enemies a lead to him.

Adèle’s life, therefore, becomes an obsessive effort to negate her father, to erase him completely, if at all possible. She lives and moves under aliases and conceals as much biographical data as she can. When the doctor and Mrs. Saunders discover her true identity, they respect her desire to keep it secret, though neither can fathom why she is not openly boastful about her parentage. When the well-meaning bookseller Wistler gives her a gift of Les Misérables, she rejects him stingingly and he disappears from her story.

Yet she is not above conjuring up her sacred surname if it will give her an advantage in the battle to express herself as a person distinct from her father. After watching a performance by a music hall mesmerist, she calls in the man’s dressingroom to persuade him to place Lt. Pinson under hypnosis long enough for the reluctant lover to be safely married to her against his will. The performer is hesitant. Nothing but a large amount of money would convince him to participate in such a risky scheme; and when Adèle suggests she can meet his price, he demands proof. She writes her father’s full name in the dust of a disused mirror among the magician’s paraphernalia. Recognizing that she is either telling the truth or completely mad—and just very possibly both—the performer sees an opportunity to fleece the lady out of a lot of money, and agrees to take part in her plot.

Just then, however, the seedy, potty Halifax wino who posed as a doubting Mountie during the magician’s show wanders in to return the uniform the magician had lent him to give credibility to the fraudulent performance. Adèle suffers another shattered illusion. The mesmerist is a fake, incapable of delivering the services she is ready to buy. The man in the Mountie uniform is a fake, just as that other man-in-uniform in her life is the fake image of a lover. She has engineered the hoax of Pinson’s love for her; the magician has created the fiction of the Mountie from the audience falling under the spell of hypnosis. Adèle says nothing, only looks at the magician—two merchants of fantasy confronting each other—and then leaves, as the angry mountebank upbraids his shill for an ill-timed entry.

Adèle, too, is angry, and not only at having been taken in by the phony mesmerist. For the fake—a proposed weapon in her struggle against her father’s domineering spirit—has proved to be instead another image of her father: a master of fiction, a manipulator of lives, and one who lets her down, dashes her hopes. And indeed, as is implied by her use of a mirror to write her father’s unspoken name, Adèle herself is an image of her father. She seeks to influence and control Pinson’s life as her father has controlled hers. She seeks, at the same time, to escape her father’s far-reaching influence—but wherever she turns, even toward a mirror, she finds again only Victor Hugo. The only fiction of her own that ever gets into print is her faked announcement of her wedding to Pinson—and even that is rewritten by her father.

Between Two Worlds

Both L’Enfant sauvage and L’Histoire d’Adèle H. depart somewhat from the historical circumstances on which they are based. In the screenplay Truffaut and Jean Gruault wrote for L’Enfant sauvage, the facts of the escape of the feral child Victor de l’Aveyron from Dr. Itard are altered (historically, the boy did not come back of his own accord); and the film ends on the optimistic note of Victor’s continued penetration of the mysteries of verbal communication and social intercourse, avoiding the fact that the real Victor lived well into middle adulthood and never progressed far past the point at which Truffaut’s Victor stands at the end of the film.

The digressions from fact serve Truffaut’s artistic and philosophical purpose: the expression of a moral classicism that goes hand-in-hand with the film’s classical style, with all its hommages à D.W. Griffith. If Victor is between two worlds at the end of the film, he has, in Truffaut’s view, nowhere to go but up. The myth of the Noble Savage is shown up, the Romantic notion of Progress is redefined in Classical terms as the process of civilization and education. Itard, as has been frequently noted, is for Victor the kind of discoverer, savior, and mentor that Bazin was for Truffaut and that Truffaut in his turn became for Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jean-Pierre Cargol, and Isabelle Adjani.

In L’Histoire d’Adèle H., too, there is a tampering with history, but the film itself acknowledges it. The opening title tells us the year in which the story begins is 1863; the closing shot, Adèle’s headstone, tells us her life spanned the years 1830–1915. Yet Isabelle Adjani, when we first see her debarking at Halifax, is no 33-year-old woman. The true Adèle must have been far more pathetic; but Truffaut has portrayed her as considerably younger in order to gain sympathy and credibility. The spectacle of an emotionally disturbed woman approaching middle age shamelessly following at the heels of a young officer is too bizarre, lends itself to bathos and to audience alienation. The more genuinely tragic image of a woman fifteen years younger than that destroying herself through the perversion of unspent passion offers pathos, where a historically accurate depiction of Adèle would have risked absurdity. Truffaut wanted genuine sympathy for Adèle because, within the framework of his Classical viewpoint, he portrays her as a helpless victim of Romanticism.

Both films juxtapose the securely civilized with the wildly exotic, or, to borrow a phrase David Willingham has used in discussing L’Enfant sauvage, “spontaneous behavior versus rational, calculated reaction.” The difference, however, is crucial: L’Enfant sauvage is a film about the achievements (and perhaps, by implication, the limitations) of

Classicism; L’Histoire d’Adèle H. is a film about the excesses of Romanticism. The wild child Victor’s world is the Romantic paradise of the Noble Savage, until Itard brings him into the uplifting atmosphere of his household and his teaching. Adèle’s world is dominated by that other Victor, the compleat Romantic. Truffaut sees her as the child not only of the man but of the movement he personified.

Both films are appropriately classical in design, using techniques common to the cinema of Griffith: horizontal wipes to reinforce the place-to-place movement of a scene change, closeups for moments of extreme emotion, division of the film into distinct sections beginning with a fade-in and ending with a fade-out, setting each scene with an establishing shot, a large number of static-camera shots of short duration, and (in L’Enfant sauvage) the use of the iris as a framing and emphasizing device.

But the difference between the worlds of the two films is firmly established. L’Enfant sauvage is in black-and-white; L’Histoire d’Adèle H. is in the rich, subtle color that characterized the earlier work of Nestor Almendros (cinematographer of both films) on Truffaut’s Les Deux Anglaises et le continent (1971). L’Enfant sauvage is scored with Vivaldi’s formally perfect mandolin and recorder concertos; L’Histoire d’Adèle H. uses the wildly expressive, intensely personal contemporary Romantic music of Maurice Jaubert (a French composer, 1900–1940, who wrote film scores, and whose work included the music to Zéro de conduite—that classic of French cinema by Truffaut’s admired artistic progenitor Jean Vigo, whose pseudonymous surname is made up of the first and last two letters of the name of Victor Hugo).

L’Enfant sauvage depicts a progress from savagery to civilization in a Classical age; L’Histoire d’Adèle H. portrays a plunge from civilization into madness in a Romantic age. Thus, when Adèle meets the officer played by Truffaut she is, by association across the two films, passing Victor de l’Aveyron on her way down.

If, psychologically, her descent is largely the fault of her father, then philosophically the blame may be laid at the feet of Romanticism. The implication in Adèle’s character is that she would have been a woman of Classical values had she not been thrust into the pitfalls of unchecked emotionalism. She insists, for example, that because she has given herself to Pinson, he and she are partners for life and must be married to one another—a common enough idea in the portrayal of the obsessed woman who fixes on one man as her goal, but hardly a notion in keeping with the Romantic ideal of sexual freedom. Her sense of chastity and privacy, her prim studiousness and her care with her appearance all bespeak a temperament Classical in orientation.

Her dream, however, is characteristic of the Romanticism to which she was born: “To walk across the ocean for her lover.” But the dream is a nightmare.

Death by Water

Adèle had an older sister, Leopoldine, her father’s favorite as Adèle tells it, who drowned with her young husband shortly after their marriage. The story goes that the husband searched the water desperately, and finally, unable to find Leopoldine and rescue her, allowed himself to drown with her rather than face living without her.

Mrs. Saunders, who lets a room to Adèle in Halifax, is understandably skeptical (we are, too) of the story when the fanciful Adèle first tells it. She takes a necklace from among the jewels that Adèle says are her dead sister’s and that she will always carry with her, and attempts to place it around Adèle’s neck. Adèle checks her movement: “I never wear her jewels.”

Mrs. Saunders: I understand you. I always wanted to have brothers and sisters.
Adele: You understand nothing. You’re better off an only child.

Yet lest we discard the story of Leopoldine as another construction of Adèle’s imagination, the doctor who comes to attend Adèle when she is ill hears the story repeated by Mrs. Saunders and nods to himself, “Yes, that would be Leopoldine.” The witness of this third party confirms the historical verity of the story of Leopoldine Hugo and her husband.

Adèle’s sleep is haunted by a recurring nightmare: a woman (herself? Leopoldine? or both in one image?) being drawn into a churning whirlpool by the weight of her spreading gown, succumbing slowly to the pull of the vortex. Why does Adèle identify herself with her older sister? And why does she do so in terms of Leopoldine’s death? Is it a simple death wish? Or is the wish to be (to have been) Leopoldine a desire for greater favor and attention from the father?

For Adèle, Leopoldine has become an Ideal of Romantic Love, and the Liebestod of the sister and her husband a pinnacle of the Romantic Life well lived. The Ideal, for Adèle, is unattainable. But it lives in her dreams. By day, however, she represses it, replaces it with the sunnier fantasy of achieving what no woman has done before: “To walk across the ocean for her lover.”

That the lover whom Adèle crossed the ocean to impress may well have been her father himself is a Freudian suggestion lurking just beneath the surface of L’Histoire d’Adèle H. In this regard it is useful to recall that her emotion-filled “crossing the ocean” soliloquy, which occurs twice in the film, is followed once, at about the middle of the film, by a magnificent series of overlapping traveling shots of the surface of the ocean, but the movement of the camera is not east-to-west, repeating Adèle’s voyage from Guernsey to Halifax in pursuit of Lt. Pinson, but rather west-to-east, following the progress of her deceptive letter to her father telling him she has married Pinson. The montage ends at her father’s home on Guernsey. At the end of the film she will follow her letter by several years, crossing the ocean for the last time in the company of the unlikely second mother-figure of the film, Madame Baa of Barbados. The crossing this time ends in Paris, where her father is acclaimed, the establishment of the Third Republic having brought him once again into his own. The crossing brings Adèle no glory, but only the ignominy of confinement, first behind institutional walls, then—more than forty years later—beneath a headstone, which stands in the shadow of her father’s.

Reality negates the dream. Adèle hasn’t really succeeded in crossing the ocean for her lover. What she has done rather is to drown. She does it before our eyes, in the scene in the Halifax charity flophouse. When the woman in the next bed opens the suitcase Adèle has with her, hoping to find money but discovering only reams of used paper, Adèle awakens, warns the woman off “my book,” and closes the snaps of the case. Then, rolling back across her bed, she slips, slowly but unhaltingly off the other side, her clothing and the bed sheets gathering about her like the gown in her nightmare. She disappears from view. When she reappears, reaching out from beneath the bed, she grabs hold (not of a lover, or husband, like Leopoldine) of the shabby suitcase that contains her book: the love-partner, the partner-in-Romantic-death is fully identified with the ink-and-paper fantasies of her distorted creation. Her choice of a world is finally made. Reality is rejected.

It has been long in coming, but the degree of her commitment is indicated considerably earlier, when she follows Lt. Pinson to the home of his lover, and watches from an outbuilding as her love and his love share their passion. Looking at the scene from behind a flimsy wooden wall, Adèle shifts her position, left to right, then back, and back again, looking first around one side, then the other, of an interfering post. The view does not differ essentially from one angle to the other, yet she keeps shifting her position, adjusting her parallax, her agitation manifesting the frustration of her voyeurism, her non-participation, her inescapable otherness. Then an odd, startling look spreads across her face, a look totally inappropriate to the situation, a terrifying look of satisfaction and conviction. Here is where fantasy, obsession, and emotional disturbance end, and madness begins.

Adèle keeps an altar in her room, a shrine to her beloved Lt. Pinson. Though the circumstances differ, the shrine connects her in the Truffaut oeuvre with Antoine Doinel who, in Les 400 Coups, kept a shrine to Balzac in his bedroom, met up with his director, Truffaut, in one scene, and became committedly alienated after spying on his mother kissing another man.

The dream is negated by the reality. Antoine’s dream, we recall, was to see the sea; Adèle’s was to walk across the ocean for her lover. Her momentous fantasy-monologue (“This I have achieved”) brings her story to an end as surely as that moment of terrible beauty at the end of Les 400 Coups when Truffaut—savior , manipulator, mesmerist, Director—brought Antoine to the sea at last, and then changed him from a little boy into a photograph.

L’HISTOIRE D’ADÈLE H.
Direction: François Truffaut. Screenplay: Truffaut, Jean Gruault and Suzanne Schiffmann, after letters and recently decoded memoirs of Adèle Hugo. Cinematography: Nestor Almendros. Set decoration: Jean-Pierre Kohut. Music: Maurice Jaubert.
The players: Isabelle Adjani, Bruce Robinson, Sylvia Marriott, Joseph Blatchley.

© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here


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