The 2012 edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at the Film Experience resumes tonight after a one-month hiatus, with François Truffaut’s 1975 The Story of Adèle H. in honor of star Isabelle Adjani’s birthday – she received the first of two Oscar nominations for playing the title character, setting a record for youngest Best Actress nominee in history that would not be taken down for almost 30 years (and contributing the the ineffably weird 1975 Best Actress slate, surely the strangest set of five acting nominees in any of the four categories, ever).
The film itself, which I had never seen, makes for a compelling double feature with Possessed, the 1947 Joan Crawford vehicle that the Hit Me… series ended with last time: both are somewhat hysterical dramas about women with profound mental damage suffering from that age-old complaint, Not Being Loved by the Right Man. It’s a bit more annoying of a theme in a 1975 French costume drama than in a 1947 American film noir, but Truffaut manages to save it by emphasising the 19th Century-ness of the whole affair, and it helps that Adjani really is quite good; not, perhaps, “worthy of becoming the youngest recipient of a lead Oscar nomination to that point” good, but pretty impressive melodramatic acting, and then some. It also benefits from cinematography courtesy of the magnificent Néstor Almdendros, making it awfully hard to select a best shot on the grounds of “what is prettiest?” – for the answer is that all of it is prettiest – but this is the right kind of problem to have.
I will refrain from giving away too much of the factually-based plot – there’s a twist right around the halfway point that probably everybody but me already knew (I made a point of knowing nothing that I couldn’t learn from the DVD front cover before popping it in) – but in short, Adèle has traveled from Europe to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in pursuit of an English lieutenant; by the ten-minute mark, we in the audience have already caught her in a number of lies and it seems quite clear that we’re in the presence of a seriously “off” woman. But it doesn’t become obvious how off she is until a letter-writing scene just before the 20-minute mark, which was for me the first indication of just how actually, legitimately disturbed she would turn out to be.
Taking place all in one shot, the scene begins simply enough, with Adèle entering her room, and turning on the light, and smoothing out a sheet of paper to write on:
The fun begins when she turns to her desk, to begin writing, and the camera follows along with her:
As she begins writing, she narrates the letter – a device used for our benefit, but it has the effect of making it feel like she’s “performing” the letter, and not just recording her thoughts. In the meanwhile, Truffaut and Almendros start pushing the camera in – I am virtually certain it’s a dolly shot, not a zoom – and we start to focus on the mirror. The “artificial” Adèle, in other words.
As we get closer, Adjani’s recitation of the letter grows farther and farther from anything resembling a woman reading aloud as she composes; she begins to look up and pause dramatically and it officially becomes impossible to tell if what we’re looking at is a dramatisation of the letter for cinematic purposes, or if Adèle has gotten so wrapped up in the fiction she’s telling that she has been obliged to stop writing and perform it for her own, crazy little audience of one.
Throughout her gesturing, she continuously changes her gaze, for maximum theatricality; it gets really damn uncomfortable on the couple of situations where she looks directly in the camera, staring us down, making us complicit in the creation of her reality.
Finally, the letter completed, she strikes an elegant, cameo-like pose in full profile, and one of the film’s many pointed fades to black carries us out of the scene, hopefully having been fully shaken by the awareness that we are going to spend the next hour and change in the company of a woman for whom the barrier between what is real and what she wants to be real is non-existent. A great moment of performance and composition working in tandem, and for me, anyway, the absolute highlight of a rather damn good movie.