Post-Relationship Trauma: Film Treatments of Collateral Damage

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by Melanie Reed

The theme of love gone wrong is one of the most popular themes in both film and literature, whether tragic or comic. Love bends our spirits in a new direction from which it may not be possible to return. Sometimes this happens literally, as in Romeo & Juliet. But what about the psychic damage of lost love? This takes a different kind of toll, and sometimes its sufferers are unable to return to themselves. The most vulnerable victims of this syndrome are those who have perceived the loved one as worthy of receiving the deepest, most personal parts of themselves. The loved one’s departure then renders these parts worthless, leaving the giver with a profound sense of the kind of emptiness, self-hatred, and despair that sometimes leads to madness. These stories are psychological portraits. In many, the ambition is merely to create a realistic and sympathetic character trajectory, with psychological elements only hinted at. But it’s worth examining these elements further, both generally and, by using extrapolation, specifically.
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In Francois Truffaut’s 1975 film The Story of Adele H, based on the diaries of 19th century romantic writer Victor Hugo’s daughter, we see Adele in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Lt. Pinson, a man with whom she has had a relationship, is stationed. Since he is not available, she pours her intense passion and energy into scheming and writing, and transcripts from Ms. Hugo’s actual letters and journals are relayed to us as voiceovers. The fantasies that eventually take over Adele’s life have already started, as she lies, bends, stretches, and tells only parts of the truth to everyone she meets, to create what she deems to be a favorable impression. But although her beauty, intelligence and initial poise are convincing for a while, it becomes clear quickly enough that Pinson, a gambler and womanizer who is more concerned with status than emotional connection, has abandoned her, and unlike the rest of the townspeople she encounters, her eloquence and passion neither convince nor move him when they finally meet again.

Having run away from home, and reluctant for people to know she is Hugo’s daughter – an association that might provoke the wrong kind of attention – Adele has been traveling under an assumed name. This introduces us to the identity issues around being the daughter of a famous and notorious man that were likely present from birth. But the journal note “when a woman like me gives herself to a man, she is his wife,” is likely a deeply true sum-up of Adele’s intense romantic nature, underscored by her plea to Pinson: “I gave myself to you. You have to keep me.” In this sense “gave” does not just mean body, but mind, heart and soul. Pinson asserts that if Adele really loves him, she will abide by his wishes that she let him go and return home. But her form of love is not selfless so much as a love addict’s form of chivalry: the desperate bargaining to simply be near the loved one, to serve with the hope that she might one day be loved again.

Adele’s progressive obsession is shown in three parts. The first part constitutes the bulk of her weeks in Halifax, where she works overtime at the job of connecting with Pinson, trying one scheme after the next. She gives him money to pay his gambling debts, hides notes in his coat, dresses as a man to crash a ball to see him, tries to channel her dead sister’s spirit, creates a shrine for him, gives him permission to see other women besides her, sends him a prostitute as a “gift” and consults a hypnotist about making him fall in love with her.

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As Adele’s direct efforts to reach him have less and less effect, the second part of her obsession begins to take the shape of more and more overt role-playing. After finally manipulating her father into giving his consent to their marriage, she reports to him that she is married and requests money. When she learns that Pinson is engaged, she confronts his finance’s father, attempting to pass herself off as Pinson’s pregnant wife. At this point, her appearance starts to deteriorate, and in a pitiful last effort to deal with Pinson directly, she follows him to his riding field and holds out a handful of cash, with staring eyes and dress and hair disheveled. When she runs out of money and has to leave her boardinghouse, she breaks down in front of the carriage driver, and in what is probably her last reality-based conversation, admits she doesn’t know where to go. When she moves to a shelter, the third phase of her obsession quickly takes over. She no longer schemes or writes, but wanders vacantly through the streets talking to herself, dress dirty and torn, wrapped in the cloak that was the last gift from her kind boardinghouse “mother.”

At this point, the story moves quickly. Adele sees two notices in the paper: that the troops are being shipped out, and that her mother has died. The extent that she registers the second is unknown, but we know that she registers the first, because she somehow manages to follow the troops to Barbados. Here she continues to deteriorate physically and mentally, wandering the streets in rags. Pinson, now married, learns that she is there, calling herself “Mrs. Pinson,” and, worried about his reputation, tracks her down and tries to confront her, in a reversal of their usual roles. But by this point, Adele is so far gone that she doesn’t even register his presence. We then see a kind native woman – who has learned Adele’s identity and no doubt saved her life – dictating a letter to Victor Hugo. In it, she reports that Adele’s “soul is lost.” The film concludes in a sort of epilogue that notes that Hugo gets his daughter back to France and arranges for her care in an asylum, with amenities that enable her to garden, play the piano, and write in her journal. She lived there for the next 40 years, outliving the rest of her family members and living to 85.

This beautifully edited and acted film, for which Truffaut also wrote the screenplay, won a number of awards and resulted in Isabelle Adjani being the youngest actress ever to receive an Academy Award nomination at the time. Why did Truffaut choose this material, and what makes it different from the many other films about spurned women? The clues lie in the introductory and closing scenes that briefly describe the characters’ time and place, from which we can extrapolate a variety of interesting, more specific reasons for Adele’s condition. Her father, Victor Hugo, was gifted, sensitive, romantic, selfish, charismatic, revered both creatively and politically, sexually promiscuous, and involved with spiritualism. Hugo’s wife, who Adele was named after, was also promiscuous, perhaps as a response to her husband’s neglect. Both she and their children suffered from varying degrees of depression, particularly their son Charles. It’s also interesting to note that when Hugo fell in love with actress and prostitute Juliette Drouet, he paid her debts and forced her to live in poverty, with her whole life focused on him. From this time on, she lived solely for him and spent her time writing him letters, of which thousands are in existence.

Did Adele’s parents take plenty of time to regularly sit down with her, acknowledge the giftedness and sensitivity she likely inherited, suggest positive explorations of her talents, and continue to support her and be there for her? Signs point to “no.” Did Victor Hugo process his older daughter’s death by becoming increasingly involved with the fantasy world of spiritualism? Here we have a definite “yes.” Adele’s romantic choices and subsequent decisions were no doubt predicated on the influences and effects of her father’s qualities. We know that Hugo was eventually able to preserve her physical life. But at this point, she is simply like one of the tragic, love-poisoned romantic characters in one of his own literary works.

Claude Goretta’s 1977 film The Lacemaker is the story of another lovelorn French girl who loses touch with reality, but one with a very different character and from a completely different time and background. We get all the information we need in the first few scenes of the film. Eighteen year-old Beatrice is living with her single mother and working in a beauty salon where Marilyn, another salon employee, has befriended her. Marilyn is older, more experienced, more adventurous, and more comfortable with both her sexuality and her feelings. When the two go on a seaside holiday, Marilyn walks sedately, while Beatrice scampers across the sand like a kid, picking up shells. But she does not take to either swimming or dancing, let alone collude in Marilyn’s drunken impulse to go nude bathing at night, and when Marilyn meets a male companion, Beatrice is left on her own. Without a protective social context, she seems not sad so much as lost, and wanders the beach and the boardwalk – an isolated figure in a large landscape.

Eventually she attracts the attention of Francois, a rich but sensitive college student. Their relationship builds slowly. There are many moments that are not awkward as much as simply quiet. Though she is from a lower social class, Francois is intrigued by Beatrice’s beauty and quiet grace, and alternates between simply observing her and trying to figure her out. Beatrice’s inexperience makes her cautious, but she is attracted to Francois by the fact that he is “considerate” enough not to pressure her. When he finally asks to spend the night with her, she is clearly nervous. But he behaves tenderly with her, and afterwards she smiles in a more natural and present way than we have yet seen from her.

They move in together. She is his helpmeet: painting the apartment on her day off while he’s at school, ironing, and taking care not to bite into her apple too loudly, lest it disturb him while he’s studying. At first he maintains that she has “a real instinct,” “natural intelligence,” and that he “learns from” her. But he is increasingly bothered by the fact that she doesn’t fit in with his college friends or family, and grows more and more critical and impatient, continuing to try to get her to “improve” herself. However, this suggestion is more for him than for her, and it is not something for which Beatrice’s background has prepared her. Finally, in what proves to be their breakup scene, he says he doesn’t know what goes on in her head, that her “mind wanders,” that she’s bored and unhappy and that they’re too different. He adds that it’s his fault – that he should have noticed this sooner.

In contrast to Marilyn, who expresses her feelings about the breakup of her three-year affair immediately, loudly and intensely, but then gets over it to a reasonable degree, Beatrice keeps her feelings inside, and as Francois breaks up with her, Beatrice quietly agrees, but her expression is devastated. At this point, the occasional classical music accompaniment changes from more lighthearted to somber, and we see Beatrice’s condition quickly worsen as she refuses to eat, stands by a phone booth, lost, and eventually, like Adele H, wanders the streets like a zombie until she faints. The next scenes are of Francois visiting her in a mental hospital. She walks slowly — obviously medicated — smiles at him in a glassy-eyed way and responds to his small talk with the kinds of positive things she thinks he wants to hear. Later we discover that her reported trip to Greece was likely based on a poster from the hospital rec room. In the final shot of the film, we see Beatrice turn and look straight at the camera with a bitter, confrontational expression; she has now grown up in a way that may stunt any more of her growth.

Goretta makes masterful use of the subtle acting skills of a young Isabelle Huppert in one of her first film roles. Huppert succeeds astonishingly at the difficult task of silently portraying the wide and complex range of emotions exhibited by a person who speaks seldom and betrays few overt emotions. Superb editing and selection of just the right number of well-placed symbolic motifs also play a large part in making this story convincing. There are many leisurely shots of Beatrice looking guardedly pleased, awkward, shy or slightly sad, either while doing a simple activity or looking at someone she knows. There are a number of visual associations with childhood and coming-of-age: Beatrice’s mother’s flashbacks at her 18th birthday party of tucking her in as a child and of seeing her dressed as a bride at confirmation, Beatrice looking through a photo album before she leaves home in what she believes to be a happy goodbye to her childhood, her various experiments with makeup that never seem to suit her, and her quirky “practice run” of sleeping in the nude with her nightgown laid over the top of the quilt to form the shape of her body. Marilyn figures in here too. Despite the fact that she’s a grown woman, she keeps her tiny childhood teddy bear by her for personal comfort – more valued than the huge teddy bear given to her by her lover. But Beatrice’s bear was lost in a move with her mother – likely ditched for practical reasons – and Beatrice has no such talismans to comfort her for her loss. We might also make a connection between the toy wind-up bird that falls flat as Marilyn gets dumped and the cliff game that Francois plays with Beatrice. Despite Marilyn’s warning to him that Beatrice is “fragile,” he plays too roughly with this “bird,” who suffers a fall from which she may never recover.

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At the end of the film, the title is more fully explicated in a voiceover with intertitles that allude to Vermeer’s portraits of quietly present women like “The Lacemaker.” In the opening panning shot accompanied by haunting music, we see a modern version of some of these women, protected, for the moment, from the pressures of the outside world, comforted by the companionship of each other, and engaged in simple, straightforward physical tasks. At the end of the film, we see Beatrice knitting alone – she has now lost her companions and her quiet grace has turned to something else.

Like Adele H, Beatrice’s father was not there for her, and her mother was likely too overburdened with her own concerns to make up much of the difference. These kinds of lacks put sensitive young women of any era or background at risk for falling prey to the wrong kind of partner and love. In terms of Francois, who we see for the first time breaking down emotionally after his painful visit with Beatrice, the film also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of not using one’s sensitivity and intelligence to understand both ourselves and those who are different from us.

Must we always blame the parents? Yes and no. Most parents have themselves inherited their society’s values and perceptions about class, women, and relationships, many of which have sadly not changed much in many cultures over many years. How can we connect positively with each other? These heartfelt portraits of extreme “love victims” bring new awareness to a general topic that is so commonplace as to mostly remain overlooked.

Melanie Reed is a writer, artist, dedicated Scarecrow volunteer and devoted fan of all forms of visual and literary stories.

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