The Story of Adele H.
The twilight of Romanticism

by Michael Klein

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 13-15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

The quest for a romantic ideal of love

If we view THE STORY OF ADELE H., Truffaut’s latest film, in relation to his previous work, especially JULES AND JIM and TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, the outlines of a developing critique of romanticism appear.
Several years ago an English film critic, Thomas Elsaesser, noted contradictions in Truffaut’s characters’ commitment to romantic quests for intense personal relationships:

“Truffaut’s heroes are romantics, and they cultivate spontaneity. Yet their desire to live an emotion as fully as possible, and to explore private fantasies tends to engross them in a closed universe. This often leads by its exclusiveness to a behavior that all but degrades their romanticism and makes them appear as cruelly inadequate.”

Many examples from Truffaut’s work come to mind. Pierre Lachenay in THE SOFT SKIN is a French academic who leaves his wife to chase after an airline stewardess; she finally comes to the recognition that marriage would be foolish for both of them. In SUCH A GORGEOUS KID LIKE ME the young protagonist blindly ignores his young secretary to defend the honor of Camille Bliss, a female Mack the Knife. Or Louis’ quest after the femme fatale in MISSISSIPPI MERMAID. All these efforts are essentially self-destructive. Claude’s intense involvement with the two sisters in TWO ENGLISH GIRLS ends in weary middle age. The three lovers never come to any significant understanding of the objects of their affections or of the complexities of the ménage à trois. In DAY FOR NIGHT Alphonse is ridiculous in his quest for a combination wife, mistress, nurse and little sister. The women realize he only sees them as object fantasies; the title of the film, in French LA NUIT AMERICAINE, further underlines the theme of romantic illusion taken for reality.

In JULES AND JIM, two men travel from Paris to an Adriatic island to view the face of a statue they have seen in a slide show at a friend’s house—it is a “tranquil” and “disdainful” sculpture of a woman. Returning to Paris, Jules falls in love with Catherine because she

“had the same face as the statue on the island... The occasion took on a dreamlike quality.”

Catherine becomes the central person in Jules’ and Jim’s lives for nearly twenty years, yet is rarely clearly perceived as a person by either of the men. Jules says that she is: “a Queen”; “a real woman whom all men desire”; “a force of nature.” Truffaut has added that Catherine is an “über-fraulein.” In these statements Catherine is transmuted into a romantic personification, however positive the ideal. Yet Jules is equally capable of quoting Baudelaire’s chauvinist sentiments:

“Woman is natural, therefore abominable... I have always been astonished that women are allowed in Churches. What can they have to say to God?”

Both the romantic and the reductive mystifications reflect oppressive cultural stereotypes that function as a matrix, limiting Catherine’s options for action, growth and expression.

Having idealized Catherine, Jules and Jim tend to ignore her as a person, except for the times when she is a “catalyzer of beautiful relationships” (Truffaut’s comment)—the scenes in which they romp and play together. For example in one scene Jules and Jim sit at a table completely absorbed in a game of dominos. Excluded from the men’s game, Catherine launches into a monologue about Napoleon being her lover, slaps Jules to get his attention, then pulls a series of expressions, the final one (a very uncharacteristic Marilyn Monroe sort of pose) held in a freeze frame.

A similar scene takes place after the war, when Jules and Catherine, now married and living in Germany, are visited by Jim. Jules and Jim sit at a table absorbed in each other’s stories about the war years. Excluded from the conversation. Catherine (also excluded from her home nation by virtue of marriage) breaks in with a monologue about the virtues of French wine. Then she dashes out, asking Jim to chase her, thus initiating their affair.

In both cases Catherine has been relegated to the role of idealized decorative onlooker (however avant-garde and romantic the idealization). She asserts her identity and right to participate but can only do so in ways that are essentially “feminine” (e.g., she is not a Napoleon but his mistress, the Marilyn Monroe pose, the flirtatious appeal to Jim) and destructive (e.g., slapping Jules, beginning another adulterous affair).

Free woman of the devil’s party

It is a characteristic of Truffaut’s films that the free woman tends to be of the devil’s party. Insofar as she is only able to assert her identity within the confines of romantic and sexist conceptions, her rebellion takes destructive forms.

In THE SOFT SKIN the wife kills her husband, to avenge his betrayal of their love. Jeanne Moreau also is an avenger in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK. She engineers the deaths of five men, each embodying a different masculine attitude toward women. She does so by transforming her clothing and hair style into that of the type of women most likely to appeal to each of the conventional “lovers.” Her disguises are both an ironic critique of the men’s stereotyped romanticizations of women, and a sign that her power still resides in manipulations of those conventions.

The men have been guilty of a double crime. First, they killed Moreau’s husband to be (her idealized, perfect, innocent love) on the day of their wedding. Also, they act out various conventions of sexist behavior in their daily lives. In killing them Moreau strikes a blow for justice. However, we also note that her actions have been motivated by romantic memory of a relationship which dated back to her childhood and which was never fully consummated.

Moreau’s role in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK is a Brechtian extension of Catherine’s predicament in JULES AND JIM. In order to achieve equality in an unequal situation Catherine has to act outside the ethical norms of society. Early in the film she cheats in order to win a race across a footbridge. In retrospect, we realize that she has to dress in a man’s outfit in order to cavort in Paris in that manner and still be considered respectable, and that her cheating has been sanctioned by the fact that she is a woman. Later, when Jules makes his after-theater chauvinist speech (“woman is natural therefore abominable”), Catherine “protests” by jumping into the Seine. Here, she accomplishes her aim (shocking Jules into recognition of what he has said) and asserts her intellectual equality not by debating Jules as an equal but by seemingly placing herself in a position of danger, threatening to do harm to herself. At the conclusion of the film she drives into a river with Jim—suicide now being the only way she can fulfill her romantic quest to possess her lover. Liebestod, the ultimate romantic ceremony, is at the same time Catherine’s final gesture of liberation.

Adele H’s quest for love and identity

Both Truffaut’s male and female characters live for an ideal of love that expresses itself in several social forms. In JULES AND JIM and TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, it takes the form of relationships based purely upon love, in distinction to the conventional norms of marriage. In THE BRIDE WORE BLACK and THE STORY OF ADELE H, it takes the form of marriage based upon perfect love.

The transcendent ideal of Liebestod is also present in the four films, and a related concept—complete involvement with a loved one. In most cases, Truffaut’s characters live by a romantic ideal of love perhaps best expressed by the poet Apollinaire, to whom Truffaut has alluded. In one of his poems Apollinaire speaks of the pi-mus fish in Chinese legend who swim in couples so closely joined that the one pair of eyes suffices for the two lovers:

“Pi-mus couplés allant dans la profonde eau triste”
(Joined pi-mus fish swimming in the sad deep water)

Adele Hugo lives and dies for this ideal, and Truffaut indicates to us that she is both heroic and deluded. The film begins with somber music and credits, which define the mood of what Truffaut has called “a sad film, very sad indeed.” Black swirls and an El Greco-like cityscape convey a feeling of passion and near madness before the film begins. Adele arrives in Halifax during a storm. The year is 1863, and the scene at customs is tense because the English officials are on the lookout for spies as the war against slavery is taking place in the United States.

Adele, a woman alone in a foreign country, appears to be unusually confident and self-reliant. She sets out to make inquiries about Lt. Pinson, an English officer recently come from Guernsey to Halifax, initially stating that she is married and is making the inquiries for her sister. As the film continues we witness her telling a number of lies about her reason for asking about Lt. Pinson, and we share a nightmare about her sister having drowned with her husband. Clearly, Adele has traveled from Europe to Canada in quest of a lover.

Pinson, however, is shocked that she has come to court him. At first it appears that there is hope for Adele. Pinson states that he has been hurt by her family’s refusal to approve their marriage. However, after Adele convinces her parents to send a favorable letter, Pinson continues to avoid her and tells her to return home. Adele continues to pursue Pinson from place to place, insisting that she loves him and that her love would be good for him. She even arranges for a notice of their marriage to appear in the European newspapers, in the hope that a scandal will force Pinson to marry the self-proclaimed Mrs. Pinson. At night she is constantly tormented by a nightmare of her sister drowning.

In the second half of the film, as Adele continues her quest for Pinson, we learn additional facts about their past relationship, and certain facts previously noted come into focus. Pinson had seduced Adele, promising marriage; as a result, she broke off an engagement with a famous poet. He thus is guilty of breach of promise, a matter of significance given the position of women in the nineteenth century. We also learn that Adele is the daughter of Victor Hugo.

At this time, her behavior tends to become extreme. She voyeuristically watches Pinson in bed with his mistresses, provides him with prostitutes, and makes public offerings of money to help pay his gambling debts. Adele also ruins Pinson’s impending marriage by revealing her past relationship with Pinson to the bride’s parents, adding for good measure that she is pregnant (another fantasy). Pinson is transferred to the Barbados, to escape from Adele and the scandal. She follows him to the island thousands of miles away and again proclaims herself to be his wife. She continues to do so after he is married. Finally she is returned to Europe to live the remainder of her life in a mental clinic—gardening, composing music, and continuing to write her journal which she had begun in Halifax.

Adele H’s life is an archetypal heroic but self-destructive romantic quest for perfect love in which the role of the male Petrarchan suitor is played by a “liberated woman.” This is conveyed by the action, the many passages from her journal which are spoken in a stream of consciousness manner, and by her dreams. At one point she writes in her journal, “Love is my religion.” After Pinson continues to reject her, she makes an altar—his picture, burning candles, incense—and prays to his image. She continually dreams about her sister’s death-by-drowning with that woman’s husband during the sister’s honeymoon. Adele reifies love and is haunted by the ideal of Liebestod, in which the identities of two lovers become completely fused:

“The newlyweds are buried together—even death cannot part them.”

Adele is a romantic heroine who dares to act like a Byron or a Shelley. She appears bizarre because nineteenth century romantic culture granted this role only to men. Her actions become extreme as she is thwarted by social constraints, as she is driven to the point of madness by internalized cultural contradictions.

Patriarchal assumptions about Truffaut’s rhetoric

Truffaut very skillfully guides us to sympathy for Adele. In the early part of the film, when she is in Halifax chasing Pinson, her actions strike us and all the characters in the film as bizarre. Midway in the film it is revealed that she is the daughter of Victor Hugo. From this point on some of the characters in the film treat her with increasing respect (a bookseller, the family she is lodging with, a doctor). Although most of her more bizarre actions (procuring prostitutes for Pinson, wandering about Barbados in a cape like a sleepwalker) occur in the last half of the film, we grant her greater significance. This is partially because Truffaut has provided us with the information about the breach of promise. However it is primarily a result of our learning that she is the daughter of Victor Hugo, and of our sense that she is receiving respect for this within the film.

Truffaut’s rhetoric is masterful. For as we realize our patriarchal bias—the woman becomes significant because she is the daughter of a famous male writer—we at the same time gain insight into the basis of her predicament (internalization of romantic ideals, the social and legal inequalities of nineteenth century women). A sort of catharsis takes place. As Adele is driven further beyond the limits of normal behavior, we, through the understanding of the typicality of her contradictions, come to have greater sympathy for her.

The psychology of contradiction

Adele’s “madness” is a function of her attempt to achieve liberation within the matrices of a sexist trap. She wants to live a life and forge an identity which is an assertion of interrelated qualities or values in fundamental contradiction. In turn, her quest reflects fundamental contradictions in society.

We have seen how Catherine’s contradictions and internalization of romantic values compell her to act in destructive and seemingly extreme ways. In TWO ENGLISH GIRLS Muriel responds to similar tensions by becoming frozen into a constrained inactive life. After the failure of her early romance with Claude—his mother imposed a test period of separation—she retreats to a semi-recluse’s life. Her attitude toward Claude vacillates between opposites. And her apparent “irrational feminine” response has a logic, for it is a reflection of her acute situation. On the one hand she pledges herself to Claude forever (in chastity). When he writes after six months that he wishes to live a free bachelor life she replies:

“I don't understand that expression. I'm not your sister but your wife. Whether you want it or not.”

However, before their separation she too resisted the ideal of marriage:

“Claude,I love you. Everything is yours except what you ask of me.”

Subsequently she resolves to attempt to break loose of her total involvement with the memory of Claude:

“I will no longer write this diary for Claude. If I do write one it will be for myself ... I shall never marry.”

Later she does send her diary to Claude, yet after a very brief affair does not remain with him.

Adele also vacillates between the romantic ideal of complete fusion with her love (on patriarchal terms) and striking out to develop her own identity. On the one hand she pursues Pinson across the ocean, offers to unilaterally support him, and unilaterally takes his name. She attempts to live a form of Liebestod in which she is completely fused with the ideal of her lover. She writes to Pinson (after he has clearly rejected her):

“My love ... In giving myself to you I become your wife ... I am your wife evermore.”

(This echoes Muriel’s:

“Whether you want it or not I am your wife ... exactly what you want.” )

Adele tells Pinson:

“Do with me what you wish.”

She asks her father to write Pinson:

“Tell him I'll be a dutiful wife.”

She literally throws herself at Pinson. She adores him and walks through the streets to glimpse him passing.

On the other hand, Adele also struggles to assert her identity through tapping the independent strength that sustain her daring violation of patriarchal conventions (her aggressively chasing the object of her desire around the world). At times she taps this source for entirely nonsubmissive ends. For example, note that Adele regards her journal as an important literary work. Thus, one night, in a flop house, she sleeps with it under a bed to make certain that it is not stolen. She composes music, although her father does not encourage its publication. She travels incognito to insure that if she succeeds in getting Pinson it will be a result of her own efforts. She attempts to achieve artistic success in her own right—to liberate her identity from patriarchal dependency:

“I am born of a father completely unknown. I denounce the official records as a fraud of identity.”

Her struggle for liberation of necessity involves inconsistencies. For example, she writes at one point in her journal:

“My sisters suffer in bordellos or in marriage ... Let them have liberty and dignity.”

Later she vows to come into her own as an artist in four years, and claims to have rejected Pinson’s proposal of marriage:

“My work needs solitude. I would never give up the name Hugo. It is I who refused to marry him.”

Yet she goes to Barbados and gives herself Pinson’s name.

Thus there are numerous elements of inconsistency and irrationality—her opposition of the oppressive patriarchal Hugo identity to the submissive patriarchal Pinson identity, her claiming to have literally rejected Pinson’s proposal, and her many vacillations. These are reflections of the acute, internalized cultural contradictions that circumscribe and fragment her quest for identity, liberty, equality and dignity.

Near the end of the film, after Adele has been brought home from Barbados, Truffaut in semi-documentary fashion moves from the 1860’s to the time of her death, in 1915, during the First World War. We see public photographs of important events in Victor Hugo’s life and a view of Adele’s clinic take us up to 1915. Then Truffaut superimposes young Adele’s face over the Halifax landscape, and has her speak directly to us:

“That a girl shall walk over the sea to the new world to seek a lover. This I shall do.”

Adele has been portrayed as an heroic figure in a tragic situation: her quest for liberation spring from romantic ideals that, given a certain society, simultaneously stimulate and frustrate, inspire and destroy.

Victor Hugo and the limits of
bourgeois democratic revolution

By the time STORY OF ADELE H. concludes, Truffaut has placed Adele’s predicament in a political perspective: he defines the nature of the culture and society that has structured Adele’s situation, that has oppressed her. In previous films Truffaut indicated that he regards certain dates as having some sort of historical significance. In both JULES AND JIM and TWO ENGLISH GIRLS the World War 1 period is seen as a cultural watershed. In JULES AND JIM the tone of the film drastically shifts away from lyricismt. The war, somber music, ominous cars, book burnings in Germany, deaths of Jim and Catherine are signs of negative historical development. In TWO ENGLISH GIRLS the film concludes with a somber epilogue that is set just after the first world war. Anne is dead, and Muriel has disappeared from our view. Claude senses that he is old, that joy is passing out of life, that a culture which was once radical is waning. This epiphany occurs while he is attending an exhibition of sculpture. Now he recognizes that neither Rodin nor Balzac is now a revolutionary figure; they have been accepted by the establishment as public figures of respectability. It is also significant, as we have noted, that Adele Hugo dies in this period, the war again being a point of demarcation.

Although Truffaut’s signs are primarily implicit and superstructural, there is a correlation between the negative dates in his symbolic time scheme and what may be viewed as the beginning of the postwar, decadent, imperialist epoch. In THE STORY OF ADELE H. Truffaut’s symbolic history is especially clear. The film begins in 1863 and concludes in 1915. We are told by the narrator that 1863 is the period of the war against slavery in the United States. Adele’s father, Victor Hugo, is not only the major French romantic literary figure of the century. Truffaut lets us know that Hugo supported the revolutions of 1848 and that he fought for the abolition of slavery in the U.S. and Latin America. During most of the action of the film, Victor Hugo is in political exile because of his defense of the French Republic. In a documentary epilogue that concludes the film Truffaut sketches Hugo’s triumphant return to Paris in 1870, lists the political honors awarded the poet by the new Republic, and shows us a procession of two million people honoring Hugo after his death in 1885.

Truffaut indicates to us that Hugo’s literary romanticism is an aspect of his bourgeois democratic world view. He clearly defines Hugo as a leader of the romantic cultural revolution, and as an active leader of the continuing bourgeois democratic revolutions of the nineteenth century. In Halifax, Adele is in contact with a doctor and a bookseller. Both discover her identity, and speak of her father’s literary achievements. Later, after Adele goes to the Barbados, an ex-slave recognizes her and writes to Victor Hugo as “a friend of the oppressed.” Adele is then brought back to her father in Europe by a black woman who was once a slave.

Because Victor Hugo’s links with the struggles of the oppressed and exploited are highlighted by Truffaut, we experience a shock of recognition. The daughter of an abolitionist and leader of the bourgeois democratic revolution is herself not free. The gains of the bourgeois revolution (abolition of slavery, formal democratic rights in legal and cultural spheres, formal equality in the pursuit of happiness) have not been extended to its daughters.

Near the end of the film Truffaut informs us that Victor Hugo’s last words were:

“I see a black light.”

Truffaut gives us this information in context of the disclosure that Adele lived the remainder of her life in a mental clinic, withdrawn from the society that broke her spirit. The “black light” in part is a sign of Hugo’s personal (patriarchal) failure. The democratic revolutions to which he devoted his life did not encompass the cultural, political or economic liberation of women.

Further, by stressing the formal pomposity that surrounds Hugo in his last years (long lists of titles, burial in the Pantheon) in which he has become a prop of the new establishment, Truffaut implies that Hugo’s death-bed disillusionment involved a recognition that the liberating and progressive phase of the bourgeois and romantic revolutions was winding down.

This is also the sort of statement Godard made in WEEKEND. In that film he views the French bourgeois revolution (“from the French revolution to a weekend with De Gaulle” ) and romanticism (the modern bourgeois philistines, insensitive to metaphor, burn Emily Bronte for her statement, “Cover flowers with flames” ) as inoperative in a society that is reverting to fascist decadence and barbarism. “Black light,” however, may also be viewed as a contradiction, as having positive and negative aspects. This is so especially in context of Adele’s need and will to strive for something better in life.

Truffaut and critical realism

Truffaut comes from a working class background. He had a childhood similar to that of the hero of his semiautobiographical THE 400 BLOWS, including working in a factory, and time in a reform school.

However, most of his films have been situated within the milieu of French bourgeois society, and have been acclaimed on the Champs Elysees and at Lincoln Center. In a sense, he has become an establishment filmmaker, apparently in the process rejecting his youthful leftwing political views. In 1960 he signed a manifesto calling for French soldiers to desert rather than fight in the colonialist Algerian war; in May 1968 he refused to sign a manifesto in support of the general strike and student rebellion.

In 400 BLOWS Truffaut’s protagonist built an altar to Balzac. Balzac is alluded to in MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (Louis reads one of his novels). And Rodin’s statue of Balzac assumes heroic proportions in TWO ENGLISH GIRLS. Apparently Truffaut, in a romantic fashion, feels a sense of kinship with Balzac.

It is of interest that Marx also considered Balzac an important writer: he was not antagonistic to the establishment, but had the capacity to reflect its contradictions. Nathaniel West, referring to this, once noted:

“Balzac ... kept his eye firmly fixed on the middle class and wrote with great truth and no wish-fulfillment. The superior truth alone in Balzac was sufficient to reveal the structure of middle class society and its defects...”

Truffaut has been a critical realist auteur. His films continually focus on questions of romanticism, happiness and the situation of men and women in middle class society. He does not offer any answers but instead presents a critical awareness of the problems.

Truffaut seems to have a good deal of sympathy with the romantic impulse. However he often shows the problematic consequences of attempts at liberation. Sometimes these attempts take the form of sophisticated detachment (Claude in TWO ENGLISH GIRLS). Sometimes the search for liberation includes a character’s reifying love, or passionate attempts by one person (Catherine, Adele), couples (Louis and Marion in MISSISSIPPI MERMAID, Pierre and Nicole in THE SOFT SKIN) or ménages à trois (Jules, Catherine, Jim) to achieve a solution. Truffaut’s critique of romanticism is thus also a caution about certain easy romantic conceptions of liberation.

Truffaut does not point to any simple solution within bourgeois society. Instead, he indicates difficulties and contradictions as well as possibilities. In doing so his films reflect the inability of that society to nurture or sustain viable general solutions.