On the night of 13 November 2015, Stefania Rousselle was on the sofa watching TV when an alert popped up on her phone: “Hostages taken at the Bataclan in Paris”. At the time she was a freelance video journalist working for the New York Times. She immediately grabbed her camera gear and ran out on to the streets and started recording: “I hadn’t even had time to change out of my PJs.”
The Bataclan concert hall was near where she was living and Rousselle was hit hard by what she saw: “the fear, the police, the ambulances”. Among the many who died that terrible night was a man she knew: “I remembered dancing with him that very summer at a friend’s wedding.” Overwhelmed by sadness, she buried herself in work, trying to forget both the terror attack and her partner who had recently left her. In the regional elections she was “embedded” with the National Front who were close to winning: “I was there to witness it. Cover the hate. The racism. More poison. But I couldn’t blink; I was a journalist.”
Eventually, she could no longer work: “My heart was crushed. I had stopped believing in love.” Rousselle took a sabbatical and went on a road trip around France, “to see for myself if people really cared for each other. Or if love was just a lie.” The result is this collection of more than 80 succinct interviews with the people she met, presented without commentary, but each with a wonderfully expressive colour portrait. Some are illustrated with additional photos by Rousselle, revealing an unerring eye for colour, composition and the unexpected beauty to be found in the mundanity of life, reminiscent of William Eggleston’s images. Rousselle stayed with her subjects long enough to get to know them and it’s clear that they grew to trust her like a friend – their statements are intimate and heartfelt confessions of what love means to them. Nora Merle (38) married her childhood sweetheart. They’ve been together 23 years and it’s their shared understanding that she values most: “It’s our roots that are tangled together. And that is stronger and more intense than the passion we had.” Some reject the idea of amour (“love was a disease”) or are deeply sceptical: “I think love doesn’t exist. Or that it’s never reciprocal.” Christian Juin (68) believes “the only true love is the one you have for your children. I cry, because I lost my son.”
Taken as a whole, these frank statements reveal a diverse account of love in the 21st century. For a woman in an abusive relationship love means “suffering”. Annick (54), who nearly left her husband when he had an affair, defines love as “a continuous series of choices. Of renunciation”. Patrick and Hervé (“the first gay couple to get married in the Gard region”) think “love is getting older together”. An 82-year-old retired mason, Lucien, echoes this. His wife has just died, and he talks movingly to Rousselle about his loss: “In the winter, we would watch television, then sit near the fire and fall asleep in our respective chairs. We were happy. I always hoped it would last forever. It didn’t.” Rousselle’s road trip clearly worked; these conversations about love and relationships restored her faith. She concludes: “Yes, we are imperfect beings, but we have something that links us together, and that is sublime: Love. Amour.”
• Amour is published by Viking (RRP £12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.