Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Many have enjoyed the writings of 19th century novelist Victor Hugo, but few know the tragic story of his daughter, Adele. Hugo's life is reflected in the bitter drudgery of his works, but also the everlasting love of his heart. This film, which was nominated for numerous Academy Awards (including Best Actress in 1975), is filmed almost entirely in French with subtitles and some English passages. It opens in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the early years of the Civil War, with beautiful young Adele, who has followed an English officer from her home in exile on the island of Guernsey.
Taking up residence in the boardinghouse of a kindly American woman, Adele keeps her true identity a secret. She has left her home without warning to her parents, who disapprove of Lt. Pinson, a notorious playboy who promised to marry her in his love letters. Fabricating a series of stories worthy of her father's own work about her relationship with Pinson, Adele manages to discover his whereabouts and seeks to contact him. Only with great reluctance does he pay her a call after a passionate letter is sent to him. He realizes that she loves him, but he is sorry... there can be no further relationship between them. He wishes her to return home to her parents, which Adele will not do. Having given herself to him, Adele refuses to let him go. If he will not marry her, she will soil his good name and bring his reputation to dust. She does not care if he does not love her -- just if he will let her love him, she promises to be happy. He may have all the mistresses he likes... if only he will marry her. Frantically she is attempting to coerce him into marriage, while pleading her parents for their consent. Adele will go to any length to entrap him into her life... or destroy him forever.
Exquisitely photographed and startlingly accurate to the time period, customs of the day, and even Adele's letters themselves, The Story of Adele H is hauntingly beautiful but emotionally difficult film to view. Perhaps because the viewer knows the story is true, and that's what makes it all the more tragic. The cinematography in many of the scenes is positively stunning, particularly when Pinson and Adele quarrel violently in a graveyard. The acting involved is very impressive. Isabelle Adjani in the lead is both lovely to look at, and very passionate in her portrayal of the tormented and almost insane Adele Hugo. Her obsession and talent for writing play off a turbulent backdrop, and the narration is inter-mingled with letters from Victor Hugo to his daughter pleading with her to return home, and updating her on her mother's tragic illness. Just below the surface, Adele is tormented by her older sister's death -- a boating accident in which both she and her husband were drowned. Visions of the scene haunt her dreams.
In her compulsive stalking of Pinson, Adele overlooks the gentle love of a much more worthy man. Thus said, the film is not one I would travel into lightly. There is only slight content issues to be wary of, but the production has a sorrowful end. The value of the film lies in its passion, but a major downfall is the subtitles. They are often difficult to read against the film itself and many might find themselves distracted by the fluent French in the background. Should you decide to traverse The Story of Adele H, you should be aware that the film places a heavy emphasis on Adele's former sexual intimacy with Lt. Pinson. The fact that she 'gave herself to him' comes up time and again in their quarrels. In her words, "A woman such as me does not give herself up lightly. I consider him to be my husband, and I his wife." She goes so far as to consider them married and does everything in her power to force him into a relationship. She does not mind his philandering (we see one episode as she does, through a window when he leads a young woman upstairs, passionately kisses her, and the pair fall back onto a bed) and even sends him a prostitute 'as a gift.' Pinson says he has 'known many women before you, and many since, and many to come,' but she ardently promises he can have as many as he likes -- if only he will love her a little.
Christian audiences will also be concerned with a sub-plot which threatens to be a main part of the story. Having followed Pinson to a theatre production, Adele witnesses a hypnotist place two people under a trance. Not knowing he is a proven fake (as we learn later) she asks him to help her with Pinson. He resists at first but then, for an exorbitant price, agrees to hypnotize him if she's willing to take the consequences. The initial stage show is lengthy (I fast-forwarded most of it, when I could tell they were just going to drone on) and the afterward scene uncomfortable. Fortunately she learns of his pretense and her attempt never comes to pass -- but it shows how desperate she is. It was an interesting film, but not one I would watch again.