To get her to go out with me again, I agreed to let feminist Gina Barreca select a film more to a woman's tastes than my choice of "Jackass: The Movie," which spoiled our first date last month. Gina picked the Truffaut classic "The Story of Adele H." We review it here together.
Gina: Set in the 1860s, this is a tale of unrequited love in which a vulnerable young Frenchwoman is driven to the edge of sanity by her romantic obsession for a British soldier who seduced then abandoned her. She follows him from Europe to Canada to persuade him to do the honorable thing and marry her.
Gene: Set in the 1860s, this is a tale of a man pursued by a wack job.
Gina: Constrained by the hypocritical standards of a society that punishes women for behavior tolerated in men, Adele finds herself robbed of her only negotiable quality, her virginity. Thus, when confronted by her ex-lover's coldness and cadlike rebuffs, she employs increasingly desperate and self-abasing measures to win him back and restore her honor.
Gene: Wack. Job.
Gina: She begins by beseeching him, but when he remains callously unmoved by her entreaties, she resorts to stealth, duplicity and coercion.
Gene: If he'd owned a rabbit, she'd have boiled it.
Gina: "The Story of Adele H." is an emotional drama of almost unbearable passion and intensity.
Gene: Nothing much happens.
Gina: In setting the movie among French expatriates in North America, the filmmaker deftly contrasts sensibilities of disparate cultures.
Gene: Half the film is in English and half in French, deftly assuring that no matter where it is shown, the audience will have to slog through subtitles.
Gina: The pacing is elegantly restrained.
Gene: Virtually every scene ends with someone staring wistfully into the middle distance. At one point, we watch Adele agonizing for two full screen minutes about which dress to wear. Another scene consists entirely of Adele, in her bedroom, mournfully worshiping at a shrine to her lover. This lasts one minute and three seconds, during which time the only action -- indeed, the only perceptible motion -- involves a single teardrop inching down her cheek.
Gina: The cinematography masterfully accentuates gloom and foreboding, evoking a disconsolate mood through the use of shadow and oblique lighting.
Gene: The entire movie appears to have been filmed at dusk. To achieve maximum inscrutability, most of the scenes take place in garrets and attics, seemingly inside closets and under beds, shot through a lens covered by dust bunnies. All the clothing is brown.
Gina: It stars the beautiful Isabelle Adjani, in a breathtaking performance which . . .
Gene: Wait. That's not Winona Ryder?
Gina: It's Isabelle Adjani. "The Story of Adele H." was made in 1975, when Winona Ryder was a 4-year-old named Winona Horowitz. She was probably shoplifting Pampers.
Gene: I am not convinced.
Gina: You are an idiot.
Gene: The film betrays a serious failure on the part of the director in that Winona/
Isabelle's beauty is, in fact, evident. Truffaut took heroic measures to disguise this vulgar fact by hiding her under bustles, bonnets, shawls and dresses that seem to be fashioned from brocaded draperies. The steamiest scene occurs when a lovesick bookseller looks out the window and is fevered by the sight of a clothesline from which is hanging Adele's underwear. It resembles clown pants.
Gina: Based upon the true story of novelist Victor Hugo's troubled second daughter, the film conveys an authentic feel by relying heavily on epistolary records.
Gene: Fully half the movie consists of Adele scowling furiously as she reads aloud from letters she is writing.
Gina: The dialogue is spare and intense.
Gene: The dialogue is as treacly as sap, and as sappy as treacle. Here's an actual sample: "It was you who sought me out. You who furtively touched my arm. You who caressed me in the corridor. Before we part forever, tell me that you could still love me."
Gina: Adele represents the most extreme version of what the ordinary woman feels when hopelessly in love, obedient to no laws of logic or order, a state where all previous guidelines for behavior are up for reevaluation, where one's self-worth and dignity cannot compete with a blind and irrational need to own and be owned by another. There is something pathetic about Adele, but something noble, too; in the grandeur of her pain and the almost eager way she embraces her own humiliation, we feel a common human experience. Ultimately, this film is about every woman.
Gene: Ultimately, this film is about every wack job.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.
Gina Barreca's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.