Picking this up after yet another long break, this is the eleventh in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.
In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of The Story of Adele H.:
A François Truffaut film to rank with Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and The Wild Child -- and perhaps his most passionate work. The picture is damnably intelligent--almost frighteningly so, like some passages in Russian novels which strip the characters bare. And it's deeply, disharmoniously funny--which Truffaut has never been before. The story, about romantic love fulfilled by self-destruction, is based on the journals of Adele, the daughter of Victor Hugo; she's played by the prodigious young actress Isabelle Adjani. The visual consistency attained by the cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, enables Truffaut to achieve a new concentration on character.
If anything, the above understates Kael's love of the film. "It’s a great film, I think—the only great film from Europe I’ve seen since Last Tango", high praise indeed from Kael in 1975. And she wasn't alone ... Molly Haskell compared it to Vertigo and The Earrings of Madame de ..., ("for me, the greatest ever made"). I think Haskell hit on something important, though, reflected in the title of her review: "'The Story of Adele H' Is a Tribute to an Experience". She called Adele H "fascinating, but ultimately more as a tribute to an experience than as an experience in itself."
Truffaut digs deep into Adele's obsession, but while Adele might think she is in love with Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson), or in a more abstract way, in love with love itself, the truth is if Adele is in love at all, it is with the obsession, not with the object of the obsession. Truffaut seems sympathetic to Adele, although her actions are increasingly excessive, such that we start to feel sorry for the cad Pinson. In real life (the story is based on the life of Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo's daughter), Adele spent her last 40 years in an asylum, and while a case can often be made for the ways "society" calls some people "insane", the Adele of Truffaut's movie, at least, seems to come to insanity without too much help from that society. Her obsession overwhelms her (perhaps that defines obsession), and Truffaut seems almost admiring of the commitment Adele makes towards that obsession. Thus, The Story of Adele H. is "a tribute to an experience" more than it is the actual experience.
Isabelle Adjani is the best thing about the movie. Only 19 when it was made, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (Louise Fletcher won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). At the time, this made Adjani the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee. She lets her obsession take her over gradually ... she is much worse off at the end of the film than at the beginning, but there is something off about her from the start, which she portrays with subtlety. We see how her obsessions crush her, as she goes from seeming reasonable to making things up out of thin air to, finally, wandering the streets, lost in her thoughts.
I'd seen The Story of Adele H. a long time ago, and didn't like it, but in fairness, I can no longer remember why. Unlike Kael, I don't think it's a great film ... among other things, I have no idea why she says it's funny. But I'm glad I gave it a second chance.