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Franois Truffaut first encountered the real-life story of Adle Hugo's all-consuming obsession with a British officer through a 1969 article in the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. An American scholar, Frances Vernor Guille, had succeeded at deciphering Adle Hugo's diaries and published them in France as a three-volume set. Truffaut's own obsession with the subject led to a six-year journey to bring the film to the screen in what would become his most ambitious historical film.
Adle Hugo (1830-1915) was the second daughter of the great French poet and novelist Victor Hugo and a poet and composer in her own right. After her older sister Lopoldine drowned in an accident, Adle believed that she could communicate with her via sances. During Victor Hugo's years of exile following Napoleon III's 1851 seizure of power, Adle met and fell in love with the British lieutenant-colonel Albert Andrew Pinson on the island of Jersey, part of the Channel Islands. The Hugos later moved to the island of Guernsey, where Adle apparently met Pinson again, though he refused to return her affections. In 1863, when Adle was supposed to have traveled to Paris to join her mother, she instead followed Pinson to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her erratic behavior toward Pinson included faking both a pregnancy and an engagement announcement. Still pursuing Pinson despite his rebuffs, Adle wound up in Barbados, dressed in rags. Her father had her brought back to France, where she lived in an asylum for the rest of her long life.
The Story of Adle H. (1975) was Truffaut's most complicated production to date. Not only did he have to receive permission from Victor Hugo's great-grandson Jean Hugo, he had to talk Frances Vernor Guille down from a very high permissions fee to use material from the published diaries. Jean Hugo specified that Victor Hugo must not be shown onscreen, though Truffaut himself also stated in a memo that the presence of Hugo would detract from the viewer's focus on Adle's story. The script went through numerous drafts; production was delayed even further when Truffaut took a break from all filmmaking activities in 1973 and 1974. Instead of Halifax, the crew shot most of the film in Guernsey--including the front of Hauteville House, Victor Hugo's actual residence-in-exile, for one brief shot. The Barbados sequences were filmed on Gore, an island off the coast of Senegal. The initial budget was set at five million francs, but in order to secure funding from United Artists Truffaut trimmed some of the more expensive historical scenes and shortened the script in general, tightening the focus on Adle H.'s behavior.
In real life Adle Hugo was in her thirties at the time of the events, but Truffaut cast the twenty-year old actress Isabelle Adjani. Fascinated by her stage presence, he convinced her to leave the Comdie Franaise despite her success in the lead role of Molire's L'cole des femmes. Before discovering her, he had considered Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and even Stacey Tendeter, one of the leads from Two English Girls (1971). While Adjani was initially concerned that she was too young for the role, she threw herself completely into it, going so far as to scream in the shower at night before shooting in order to deliberately strain her voice. Truffaut relied heavily on close shots of the actress to emphasize her performance, even at the expense of setting; various critics have noted the overall lack of sky in many outdoor shots because of this. In a 1984 interview Adjani recalled, "[Truffaut] had manias he held on to: with my right hand, I was supposed to squeeze my left arm obsessively. He did that in life and he repeated it each time he played a role."
Considering his emotional investment in the project, Truffaut was disappointed in the film's mixed critical reception in France and its tepid box office. Fortunately it fared better abroad, especially in the United States. Vincent Canby considered it the highlight of the 1975 New York Film Festival, noting the "extraordinary grace" of Adjani's performance, the usual mastery of Nestor Almendros' cinematography, and the richly textured soundtrack. In her review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote: "Adle H. is a feat of sustained acuteness, a grand-scale comedy about unrequited love, and it's Truffaut's most passionate work."
Director: Franois Truffaut
Producers: Marcel Berbert and Claude Miller
Screenplay: Jean Gruault, with Suzanne Schiffman and Franois Truffaut
Director of Photography: Nestor Almendros
Film Editing: Martine Barraqu
Production Design: Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko
Costume Design: Jacqueline Guyot
Cast: Isabelle Adjani (Adle H.), Bruce Robinson (Lieutenant Albert Pinson), Sylvia Marriott (Mrs. Saunders), Joseph Blatchley (Bookseller), Ivry Gitlis (Hypnotist), Louise Bourdet (Victor Hugo's servant), Cecil De Sausmarez (Mr. Lenoir), Ruben Dorey (Mr. Saunders), Clive Gillingham (Keaton), Roger Martin (Doctor Murdock), M. White (Colonel White), Madame Louise (Madame Baa).C-98m. Letterboxed.
by James Steffen
Canby, Vincent. "Truffaut's 'Adele' ends film festival." New York Times, October 13, 1975, p.31.
De Baecque, Antoine and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Guille, Frances Vernor. Le Journal d'Adle Hugo. Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1968.
Kael, Pauline. Review of The Story of Adle H. Originally published in The New Yorker, October 27, 1975. Reprinted in For Keeps. New York: Plume, 1994, pp. 650-653.
Le Berre, Carole. Franois Truffaut at Work. London: Phaidon Press, 2005.
Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1997.