How Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H.” proves that film is more real than life

Cinema is the thing that gives life to that which never existed and brings back to life that which is dead. Even before the invention and popularization of photography, something was missing. That something was the expression of movement. Cinema liberated the plastic arts from stillness and, eventually, the audience from Renaissance conventions.

Film is not literature, because literature is linguistics. Linguistics are a language, as is cinema, but cinema is not a language made of words. It is not a language made of images. It is not a language made of shots. It is not a language made of images and sounds, or even “signs.” It is a language made of life. And because it is immersive for the audience, cast and crew, it is better than life. And because of the narrative, which defies the laws of time and space, spectator, cast and crew are tied together and focused. This togetherness of goal and concentration on the bonding element of the cinematic experience is enough to make cinema more real than life itself. But it is not the only thing that makes it so.

This is a theory that should be examined. The paradox of cinematic representation is that it is seen as a story and therefore, it draws parallel with literary forms more readily than to its own self. Literary authors who will openly admit that they were influenced by cinema in their approach to literature are very few. But the reason why it is so hard for us to imagine life in the 1400’s, for instance, compared to that of the 1910’s, is because we have no photographic representation of the 1400’s. Alternatively, if we do think of the 1400’s – the century of Henry the Navigator, the beginning of the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of the American continent – it is more than likely because we have been informed by cinematic depictions of the time, which may at first have been informed by surviving objects of the era, literary accounts and paintings, but were subsequently informed more prominently by the history of cinema than history itself. It is therefore unlikely that, if film has the power to change history, it should not have the power to change linguistics, and as a direct result, literature.

Such a case can and has been argued for the non-fictional literary account, e.g. the biography. Is a film inspired by true events more real than, for example, a journal written by the witness of those events? Yes it is, because while in a journal there is space and movement, it is more real than the images that appear in our heads as a result of us reading the words on paper. But not only because of that.

What about photography? Is the photograph of, for instance, a man more realistic than a film about the same man? Yes, because the photograph singles out a moment in time lived by said man. This man may be laughing in the photograph. Does that mean he lived his entire existence laughing? More than that, is the man’s smile legitimate? More often than not, people are invited to smile for the camera by whoever is taking the picture. The smile may be so untrue that it may alter the person’s appearance altogether. It’s not unlikely to hear people say they were not recognized from reference of a certain picture of theirs. It is also getting progressively easier to alter the realism of an image with various filters and other technological devices. Fundamentally, however, it is stillness that has the ability to alter a person’s true appearance and, as a result, alter a person’s personality in the way that it may be perceived by the spectator. Such concealment is not as probable, though not impossible, in cinema, where movement, even imperceptible but nonetheless present, is perceived.

But let’s return to the provocative implication: is cinema more realistic than real life? How does the cinematic adaptation of a non-fiction book reveal realism? An example lies in the 1975 film by Francois Truffaut, The Story of Adele H. For the purpose of not making things seem too complicated, the film itself – a period drama – will not be critically analyzed. We will focus our attention to the story of the making of the film and certain aspects of it that support this essay’s implications.

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