Wordiness is a problem with many literary adaptations. In the effort to remain loyal to the original work, some cram in more dialogue than is really necessary; the best are those that allow the visuals to take on much of the burden of description and explanation. In this sense, “Adolphe,” based on the 19th-century French novel by Benjamin Constant, is a huge success.
There’s not a lot of dialogue, and in places that lesser directors than Benoi^t Jacquot (“Tosca”) would have characters explaining things to death, he chooses to utilize a few choice visuals. The same goes for the interpretation of descriptive passages. While the novel used about five pages to describe a slight waning of passion on the part of the hero, Adolphe, Jacquot makes do with 20 seconds. It goes like this: Adolphe is at first so eager to see his love that he tears through the forest on his white charger to reach her chateau. In the next segment he slows down to a trot and in the final scene, he makes his horse dawdle among the trees, in no hurry whatsoever.
Of course, “Adolphe” could have been about two hours longer — but as it is, the work is the equivalent of a Zen garden where minimalism stands for eloquence.
Constant’s novel is written as Adolphe’s confession; an extravagantly long soliloquy that would have had Hamlet running for cover. The self-absorbed, 24-year-old son of a French government official, Adolphe falls headlong into love with the beautiful Ellenore, a woman 10 years his senior and mistress to a count.
Adolphe’s ardor peaks when Ellenore takes her two children on a monthlong vacation to the countryside. When she returns he confesses his passion and begs her to “be kind.” She acquiesces, but almost as soon as they become lovers Adolphe cools off, in contrast to Ellenore’s increasing obsession. She leaves her children and the luxurious life provided by the count to make herself completely available to him, at a time when this is what he least desires.
In the book, Adolphe expends a colossal amount of words on his agony, stressing over and over the tragedy of a man “who cannot return the love of a woman who’s passionately devoted to him.” But Jacquot pares his monologue down to the barest essentials, relying mostly on the physical expressions of actor Stanislas Mehrer to fill in the blanks. Deploying a heavy gloom that descends on his features every two minutes and chilling the entire screen, Mehrer’s brilliant depiction of boredom and agonized frustration is all the more effective for his extended silences. The camera has him mostly in profile in his dealings with Ellenore (played by a splendid Isabelle Adjani) and it’s like watching a frozen tableau of irritated indifference.
Ellenore is perceptive enough to see that he’s staying with her solely out of a sense of obligation, but is too needy to cut him loose. She reiterates her love, emphasizing how she has given up everything for his sake. On occasion, his father writes to tell him what Adolphe already knows — that he’s frittering away his precious youth on a woman he no longer cares for: “Is this what you choose when you can be doing grand and beautiful things?”
Trapped between guilt and the desire for freedom, Adolphe’s irritation grows. At one point he shouts “I don’t love you!,” kicks things and goes off. But a few minutes later, he’s back, sinking sullenly into the chair beside Ellenore. They have nothing much to say or anything in common except the pained conviction that he is all that she has in her life.
This is Adjani’s movie as much as Mehrer’s, the first film work she’s done in six years (the last was “Diabolique”). Adjani turns on her trademark, doe-caught-in-headlights stare full force, her dewy innocence utterly belying the fact that she’s nearly 50 years old.
The role of a woman gone overboard for love had defined Adjani’s career, but in “Adolphe,” Adjani tinges her performance with a hint of scheming calculation. For all her declarations of “undying love,” you get the feeling Ellenore is just as intent on self-preservation, fully aware that Adolphe’s guilt trip is her greatest weapon. She tells him that it’s “pity, not love” that’s binding him to her, but at the same time she refuses to set him free.
In a memorable scene, Ellenore wakes before Adolphe and goes outside in the snow. She returns with a basket of pine cones that she throws into the fire — “to give fragrance to our bedroom.” Adolphe remains silent at this show of charming consideration. She turns to him with a brief, apologetic smile, as if asking forgiveness for behaving like a happy woman who’s confident of her lover’s feelings. This is practically the only time Ellenore smiles — and then she catches herself and goes back to looking sad and lost. As the old saying goes, she’s got him by the short and curlies — no wonder he can’t escape.