New Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux is known for her extensive memoirist writings. For The Super 8 Years, co-directed with her son David Ernaux-Briot, she branches out from literature to film. The title alludes to a timespan of 1972 to 1981. It begins when her husband, Phillippe Ernaux (to whom she almost always refers by his full name), purchased a Bell & Howell Super 8 movie camera. It ends with their divorce. Over the decade the camera chronicles, compressed into barely more than an hour here, their young sons become teenagers, Ernaux’s literary career takes off, and myriad political upheavals come and go. The subject matter could not be more mundane, but Ernaux’s musings elevate its telling to something far more compelling.
Ernaux is a very class-conscious writer, and between her and Ernaux-Briot this material becomes an examination of the regular habits of the upwardly mobile generation that emerged in France during the latter half of the 20th century. Raised by parents who had worked hard all their lives and then endured World War II, they reaped the benefits of unprecedented improvements in standards of living, and of newly available opportunities for leisure and travel. Consumer-grade personal film cameras constitute one example of many newfangled gadgets that were equal parts tools and chic social signifiers. Before many people had cameras we can easily pull out of our pockets, these devices were most often used during holidays, personal celebrations, and vacations — all vectors through which class-specific qualities (e.g., dress, activities, recreational toys) can be foregrounded. (In this way, the film makes for a great companion with another recent documentary, the similarly themed Terra Femme.) Watching her boys gleefully help at her aunt’s farm, which still has a composting toilet, Ernaux recalls that she was glad they could experience some of the more hardscrabble life in which she grew up, an existence that was all her parents knew for most of their own lives.
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The documentary keeps the history that happens parallel to the lives of Ernaux and her family in the background. She frequently rattles off major and minor events in France and around the world as they come about — most often elections and changes in government. Yet these are but one element among many in a sequence of memories; they do not steer the narrative. As in real life, larger events feel most relevant where they intersect with personal experiences. We see the Ernaux family visit Allende’s Chile; not long after, she recalls how it was overthrown.
The Super 8 Years is also a work of reappropriation, in a sense. Ernaux notes early on that Philippe is seldom visible in the footage because he was usually the one holding the camera. (He is even credited as cinematographer.) These images of her, their family and friends, and the places they visited are mostly mediated through his gaze, what he thought was most worthy of attention. Here, the observed becomes the observer as Ernaux repositions her ex-husband’s footage. It attests to the slippery, malleable nature of memory as it comes into play with photography. Ernaux proves just as adept at crafting a cinematic memoir as a written one.
The Super 8 Years is currently in select theaters.