Based on an 1816 novel of the same title, Benoit Jacquot’s “Adolphe” is fully kitted out for arthouse success — Isabelle Adjani swanning about in despair, handsome settings, a tragic narrative trajectory. But any golden expectations raised by that package will fall once word gets out about the tedious pace and cold lead perfs. Rare miss for the helmer/co-scenarist, coming after two more enjoyable yet slight costume exercises (“Sade,” “Tosca”), suggests he’s overdue for a return to the contemporary milieu so expertly explored in “The School of Flesh,” “A Single Girl,” et al.
Original text was scandalous at the time for its obvious similarities to Swiss gadabout author/politico Benjamin Constant’s busy romantic life, which involved several well-born, possessive women (often in overlapping fashion). In the novel, they — in particular one Mme. de Stael, with whom he was involved on-and-off for 16 years — are composited into a single female figure. Whatever roman a clef frisson the book may still possess, however, is lost in an adaptation by Jacquot and Fabrice Roger-Lacan that plays as stock amour fou melodrama.
Young, handsome and stuck in the provinces engineering a highway’s construction, Adolphe (Stanislas Merhar) meets the beauteous widow Ellenore (Adjani) at a salon thrown by her patron, the much older Count (Jean Yanne). Rightly gauging her to be bored and unhappy, he decrees her a “worthy conquest”; being initially spurned only turns this idle pursuit into an impassioned one. When Ellenore relents, she throws herself whole-heartedly into the affair, at length going so far as to leave both the count and their two small children.
Yet Adolphe’s ardor seems to cool in direct proportion to her desperate devotion — a seesawing effect that grows as turgid as it is unsympathetic. Clinging to the 10-years-junior lover despite increasing doubts about his honor, Ellenore goes from kept woman to keeper when her Polish aristocrat father’s death restores both her title and fortune.
But this only increases Adolphe’s desire to bolt. Grimly resigned to that eventuality, heroine lapses into lovesick ill heath. Naturally, death proves just the thing to secure fickle Adolphe’s affections at last.
Uncomplicated story soon turns into a monotonous cycle of accusations, walkouts and halfhearted reconciliations. Mood is somber throughout, but as plodding progress gets ever-more repetitiously glum, the few outbursts of argumentative hysteria take on an unfortunate artpic-parody tenor.
Some of Adjani’s best perfs, from “The Story of Adele H.” through “Possession,” “Camille Claudel” and so forth, have followed love into madness. But her mask-like countenance of recent years does not accommodate such emotional calisthenics as it once did. This marble-ized turn is regrettably matched by Merhar, who’s worked with numerous directors of note (Oliveira, Akerman, Pupi Avati) since his “Most Promising Newcomer” Cesar for ’97s “Nettoyage a sec,” but here succumbs to stony, heavy-lidded posturing. Needless to say, their chemistry generates zero heat, despite a few heavy-breathing early scenes.
Yanne is fine in a relatively small part, while other support thesps are given almost nothing to do. Period design detail is handsome though on the spare side; lenser Benoit Delhomme’s outdoor vistas are lovely, even if the film itself sorely lacks lyricism.