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.

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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