On Empathy, François Truffaut, and Halifax
This story is part of my weekly “Have you seen …” series where I highlight movies that I think are under-appreciated, misunderstood, or simply worth talking about. New entries are published every Wednesday. NOTICE: Spoilers follow.
Of its many qualities as an art form, perhaps cinema’s greatest asset is its ability to humanize: paintings can be beautiful snapshots into momentary human existence, but they are just that — momentary. All films are, of course, just slices of something larger, but the simple act of recording humans acting like humans and projecting the result for a group of humans has something radical at the heart of it all: empathy.
Movies, by their very nature, require you to coexist with characters or scenarios for a set period of time. In many films, these scenarios are ones in which you would never find yourself, and the characters are ones unlikely to much resemble your companions. The result is a kind of parasocial mixer: you’re asked to engage meaningfully with the lives of others, and if you’re a good movie watcher, you do so.
Throughout cinematic history, this core tenet of filmmaking is most often and most effectively used to arouse empathy (or, in many cases, understanding) in an audience for a character they’re likely not disposed to care much for. Take Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, whose descent into madness is tracked so carefully by Martin Scorsese that it’s impossible to see where exactly it begins and ends, or Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, a woman whose shocking crimes are framed as matter-of-factly as her peeling potatoes. Travis and Jeanne, as different as they are, are figures for whom we feel very little when seen in news reports but manage to connect with deeply through the medium of film.
One could write a book (several, more likely) on how different directors have used this phenomenon — which I’ll call “forced empathy” for present purposes—to different ends, but I’d like to focus on one specific example here: François Truffaut’s oft-overlooked 1975 film, The Story of Adèle H.
The movie itself is slightly unusual for Truffaut: it is, on the surface, something of a straight period piece. The titular Adèle H is in fact Adèle Hugo, daughter of the famous Victor, who has fled her family to chase a British lieutenant, Albert Pinson, who had once promised her his hand in marriage before his regiment was moved. Living pseudonymously in the great mid 19th-century melting pot of Halifax, Adèle seems initially like the protagonist of a great period love story. The audience soon realizes, somewhat quicker than Adèle does, that Pinson is in fact something of a rake, a man who’s racked up hefty gambling debts and is willing to say just about anything to a woman if it has an effect on her.
Put bluntly, many aspects of the film are not exactly revelatory. At a point, Adèle’s downward arc becomes clear and the film’s display of her repeatedly self-defeating attempts to win Pinson’s attention feels gratuitous. It doesn’t take a particularly tuned-in viewer to see that Adèle struggles are not simply emotional ones: she, along with several other members of the Hugo family, suffered from schizophrenia throughout her life.
For most movies dealing with severe mental illness, the disorders themselves are singular in their presence: a motivation that a certain character may have for doing something or a dramatic conceit to up the tension in the right moments. Truffaut’s take, however, is something else entirely: never once in the film is any explicit mention of mental illness made. Even in the film’s credits sequence, the asylum in Adèle spent 40 years of her life isn’t described as such, only as a place where she wrote, played music, and gardened.
Instead of framing Adèle’s state as one of aberration, Truffaut insists on showing the legitimate foundations for her journey to Canada. This isn’t to say that he at all erases mental illness from the film; he simply opts to view Adèle holistically instead. There are repeated voiceover insertions of Adèle’s extensive diary in which she describes the nuances of her desire for Pinson. For most of the film, the battle isn’t one between sanity and insanity — it’s between passion and desperation.
The good viewer allows himself to be “forced” into experiencing a film; it is this kind of voluntary compulsion that makes a movie like The Story of Adèle H so moving, for at no point are we allowed to break away from Truffaut’s conception of Adèle — we must engage with, take her exactly as she is given to us.
Reading Hugo’s Wikipedia page, it’s easy to get the impression that Pinson was just some poor sucker that the sick Adèle just happened to get latched onto at the wrong time. While there is likely a bit of truth in this, it’s not the narrative we are given in The Story of Adèle H.
Instead, we see a naïve young girl unprepared to face the fact the man who once said he loved her was more a manipulator than a lover. It’s a film about disenchantment, learning that the world and the people contained therein are capable of evils we simply couldn’t have thought possible. All of this makes it incredibly easy to stick by the deteriorating Adèle side as the film moves on, and the empathy just flows — we may not know what it’s like inside her mind, but we understand her pain in a way that we wouldn’t if all we had was her diagnosis. As ever, Ebert put it best:
“Truffaut finds a certain nobility in Adèle. He quotes one of the passages in her diaries twice: She writes that she will walk across the ocean to be with her lover. He sees this, not as a declaration of love, but as a statement of a single-mindedness so total that a kind of grandeur creeps into it. Adèle was mad, yes, probably — but she lived her life on such a vast and romantic scale that it’s just as well Pinson never married her. He would have been a disappointment.”
None of this is to ignore the generally high quality of the film’s craft—Isabelle Adjani’s Oscar-nominated performance in the title role is of particular note—it’s just to say that Truffaut, one of the most visibly empathetic directors in cinematic history, knew how to use cinema’s capacity to make humans understand humans perhaps better than anyone else.
Ultimately, this story is not just Adèle Hugo’s: it’s the story of anyone whose narrative has been sidelined by mental illness. That someone is suffering internally is not cause to write off their experience, and yet that’s what happens more and more in our “diagnose-and-perscribe” society. Everyone is greater than the sum of their medical records, and all the way back in 1975, François Truffaut made a film reminding us that the soul is defined not on what constrains it, but on where it yearns to go.