Shooting is an act of love

François Truffaut was a man with the soul of a child – or so said Spielberg. Nina Caplan remembers a

I fell in love with François Truffaut in just the way he fell in love with cinema: an impulsive duck into an obscure Paris film house, et voilà: lifelong obsession. He was six or seven and playing hooky from school to watch everything from Hitchcock to Ford to Renoir; I, being 18, and easily confused about these things, mistook a passion for the films for a passion for their maker, and developed a crush. This was an error on many levels, not least because Truffaut - intense, dark-eyed, charming, chain-smoking and bookish - was already dead. Yet it was the kind of mistake he would have understood, because youthful illusion and misdirected desire were his subjects of choice.

He was born illegitimate in 1932, had a difficult childhood in occupied Paris (though it was his neglectful mother, rather than the Germans, who caused the difficulties) and became an excoriating critic who had seen, by his own reckoning, 3,000 films by the time he made his own first feature, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows), in 1959. But let's not cling to the facts: Truffaut wouldn't approve. He mined his life relentlessly but never repetitively, and there is an antic spirit to even the grimmest revelations in his films that has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with cinema.Stick with Truffaut and you'll be entertained by its stories of boyish delinquency, female recalcitrance, maternal neglect and the regrettable propensity of the adult heterosexual male to run after things he can't catch: ideals, women, more women. Not for nothing did
he make a film called L'amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979), in which it is never quite established whether our hero is chasing love or is
being chased by it, or whether a happy ending involves escape or getting caught.

The 400 Blows ends with an emblematic shot of running away - little Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), sent to a home for juvenile delinquents for stealing a typewriter, escapes and flees along the beach. Is he running from Maman, as well as the authorities, or trying to get back to her? It's a problem that Doinel, who is Truffaut's alter ego, never solves. Love on the Run is the fifth and final film that casts Léaud as Doinel, and there he is, still in motion.

Maybe Truffaut, a lifelong bibliophile, became a film-maker rather than a novelist because books don't move at the requisite pace. Jean-Luc Godard, his childhood friend (they both used the cinema as their unofficial schoolroom, though they fell out spectacularly later in life), said that cinema is the truth 24 times a second. The authorities couldn't keep up, but it turned out that the demons could.

Truffaut was the first of his group of critics-turned-film-makers to hit pay dirt, winning the Best Director prize at Cannes with his debut film and getting nominated for an Oscar. The next year, Godard released À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and the New Wave was off: young cinephiles with lightweight cameras, tiny budgets and self-written scripts, out on the streets of Paris, showing the fossilised French film industry what movement looked like. Truffaut followed up with a homage to his beloved American gangster films, Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, 1960), and then came Jules et Jim (1962).

“The films of the future will be more personal than autobiography, like a confession or diary," Truffaut had written brashly in 1957. "Young film-makers will speak in the first person in order to tell what happened to them: their first love, a political awakening, a trip, an illness, and so on. Tomorrow's film will be an act of love."

This pleasing scenario would have about as close a relationship to actual events as most of Truffaut's scripts, but it is at least true of his own work, and if any film could be described as an act of love, it is Jules et Jim. All his finest qualities as a writer (he adapted Henri-Pierre Roché's novel) and director are visible in this story of a Frenchman and a German whose close friendship segues logically into love of the same woman. The film is light yet touching, inventive and believable, swift but unforgettable. Is there any other movie that confides so entertainingly the charming secret that love is misery, women are impossible and men wouldn't have it any other way?

My love for Truffaut felt reciprocated, because he kept giving me things. Jeanne Moreau singing "Le tourbillon de la vie" in Jules et Jim; Claude Jade as Christine, teaching Doinel, now in his twenties, how to butter tartines in Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968), the little boy kissing his two girlfriends in L'argent de poche (Pocket Money, 1976). I came to recognise my beloved's tics: lines repeated from one film to another, sometimes by the same actors; visual duplications, some trivial (most of his films have a cat nibbling at the contents of a breakfast tray left out by lovers), others anything but (a year later, that lucky, two-timing little boy is mirrored by the outwardly adult Bertrand - played by Charles Denner - proving his credentials as L'homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women, 1977).

And I accepted his flaws: the inwardness of a man who would rather watch a great film again on television than attend a dinner party, the
obsessive character of a director who only ever halted his film-making to spend four years interviewing Alfred Hitchcock for a book - a wonderful book, admiring but not slavish, illuminating and steeped in detail, but still something of a busman's holiday - and the complicated neediness of a man who loved women, chased them incessantly, wrecked his marriage through infidelity, slept with almost every one of his lead actresses and composed visual odes to their loveliness and his addiction to it in every film that he made.

Truffaut taught me to appreciate the sway of female hips beneath a skirt. He obliged me to gaze avidly at Jacqueline Bisset's perfect face, Françoise Dorléac's undulating dance moves and Moreau's statuesque, self-contained loveliness, with its whispered threat. Does this count as abuse? No other director will invite you to hear the sound that stockings make as a woman crosses her legs (nylons, that is: silk stockings are silent). It would all be infuriatingly sexist, were it not threaded with neediness. This is not prurient fantasy, it is the director's life. "American cinema is great at depicting 'heroes'," said Truffaut, "but the vocation of European cinema may be to express the truth about people, which means to show their weaknesses, their contradictions and even their lies."

At its best, Truffaut's personal conception of cinema explains the world, and the cinema; it's not at all clear that he could tell the difference. In 1973, he made this confusion evident in La nuit américaine (Day for Night), which takes place on a film set and blurs reality so splendidly that a crane whirls us aloft to watch a crane lifting the director (played by Truffaut, as one might expect) to shoot a scene that is "really" fiction. This celebration of cinema won him the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1975 and was nominated for three others, of which Best Original Screenplay should have been his. (Is there any better line than the script-girl Nathalie Baye exclaiming: "I could leave a man for a film, but I could never leave a film for a man"?) The screenplay statuette went to Polanski's Chinatown - it was a good year. Day for Night may also have helped win Truffaut a less coveted award: the role of scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg cast him because, he said, he wanted a man with the soul of a child.

I can't make any claims for his soul: sadly we never got quite that close. But his childhood was the tartine he buttered throughout his career, in his writing (it should surprise no one that the child delinquent Truffaut did indeed steal a typewriter) and as a director. He made 21 feature films before dying, in 1984, of a brain tumour. He was 52. Throughout an adventuresome life, he remained faithful to three things - cinema, literature and a notion of love as complicated, impossible, irresistible.

It's quite a legacy. He is mourned, but he's not missed; the best of him is still here.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.