Gilbey on Film: Eric Rohmer remembered

The French New Wave director specialised in love gone astray -- and the occasional severed head

With the death yesterday of Eric Rohmer, incorrigible romantics and cinephiles everywhere lost a great ally and cheerleader.

He was 89 when he died, and seems to have been that age for at least two decades; certainly when I first saw a Rohmer film (the 1983 Pauline at the Beach, a bright but barbed roundelay), the image I held of him was a white-haired sage who hadn't forgotten what it was like to be young and impetuous. He was often commended for his understanding of youthful hearts; he was nearly 50 by the time he made his late-Nouvelle Vague masterpieces My Night With Maud and Claire's Knee, and retained those films' acuteness in even his most recent work.

While cherished for his stories of love misdirected and mishandled, he made the occasional surprising departure, such as 2001's French Revolution drama The Lady and the Duke. How surprising was it? Well, it was shot on digital video, featuring digitally enhanced backgrounds and mise-en-scène. (In Ten Bad Dates with De Niro, a book of movie lists, the critic Anne Billson included it in her tally of "Ten Places You Wouldn't Expect to Find a Severed Head": "Of all the film directors in the world, Rohmer -- auteur of tasteful films full of droopy young French people who talk a lot -- is probably the last in whose oeuvre you would expect to find a severed head. And yet here it is, on a pike.")

My own late-period favourite remains A Summer's Tale, from 1996, one of his "Contes des quatre saisons". He moves his camera and directs his cast with such intuition and clarity that you are drawn into a scenario that seems at first to be a bagatelle.

It concerns Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud, who also turns up unexpectedly in this week's British thriller 44-Inch Chest), a pretty young graduate holidaying in Dinard. There, he has sort-of arranged to meet his sort-of girlfriend, Lena. Gaspard is like that; he's a sort of musician, too, though the sea shanty he's toiling over suggests he should sort of quit sort of immediately.

He starts hanging out with Margot (Amanda Langlet), a student who is spending the summer waitressing. They walk and talk and flirt with each other, and Margot has enough savvy to rebuff Gaspard's cumbersome advances. But that's OK: another local girl, Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon), wants his body. She and Gaspard begin their own little romance, which is just dandy until Lena (Aurelia Nolin) finally shows up.

Rohmer's knack in the film is for bringing compassion and emotional complexity to the tritest situations. You could find a predicament like Gaspard's on at least two stages in the West End in any given month. But Rohmer is more interested in stripping away Gaspard's façade than exploiting his discomfort, revealing not the hapless puppet we had expected, but a master puppeteer capable of surreptitiously manipulating those around him -- at least until his strings start to get knotted. The protracted takes and gentle volleys of dialogue create a kind of harmony out of the emotional discordancy, so that it takes you a while to notice that the romantic entanglements have gone as haywire as Gaspard's hair.

"I'm curious about people," Margot tells Gaspard at one point. "No one is totally uninteresting." That could have been Rohmer speaking. In fact, it wouldn't make a bad epitaph.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis