This article appeared in the January 26, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

The Super 8 Years (Annie Ernaux and David Ernaux-Briot, 2022)

Annie Ernaux, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, made a movie with her son. This sentence is technically true, but The Super 8 Years, which received its general release two months after October’s Nobel announcement, feels like a work by Annie Ernaux proper—not a collaboration with others, not an adaptation from one medium to another, but a translation of her writing from text to speech, by way of the author’s voiceover, and (if, like me, you watched the film with English-language subtitles) back to text again. This is not to say that the images of The Super 8 Years—drawn from home movies shot by the author’s late ex-husband, Philippe Ernaux, and assembled by David Ernaux-Briot—are incidental. Images are never incidental in Ernaux’s writing.

In fact, the film’s visuals, shot between 1972 and 1981—depicting the author (in her thirties), her mother, her in-laws, and her two sons (moving into adolescence)—will seem strangely familiar to Ernaux’s readers. These characters and these scenes have featured elsewhere in her writing. In The Years, her maximalist project of 2008which culls the visual and verbal data of her life’s circumstances into print, Ernaux describes the film’s earliest footage: she and her sons return home from the grocery store. “They move their arms and legs in a group facing the camera, which they gaze at, their eyes now accustomed to the violent light. No one talks. One might almost say they’re posing for a photo that will not stop being taken.”

Ernaux’s narratives have incorporated descriptions of visual images before—her parents’ wedding photo, a snapshot of herself at age 8 on a pebble beach—but she has always also maintained their inferior status. She writes, in 1987’s A Woman’s Story, “This book can be seen as a literary venture as its purpose is to find out the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only by words. (Neither photographs, nor my own memories, nor even the reminiscences of my family can bring me this truth.)” Likewise, in The Super 8 Years, she says of the voiceless footage: “words were needed to give meaning to this silent time.” Photographs, moving and still, have been props to Ernaux’s writing. They are her memory aids, her frequent muses, and the templates for her curious, denotative grammar. In The Super 8 Years, they are also the limiting conditions for her narration, framing its beginning (when Philippe Ernaux purchased the camera) and its end (when he took the camera with him after the couple’s divorce). The film suspends the viewer in this bounded time, before it was so known.

Within the pages of her highly self-conscious works, Ernaux has variously described her writing as “flat,” “neutral,” “in the style of a testimony,” and a “listing and description of … facts.” She pursues objectivity, compelled to “tear [herself] from the subjective point of view,” rejecting “irony, pathos, and nostalgia” as departures from the “external evidence of … existence.” In abandoning subjectivity—or trying to hold it at bay—Ernaux is not masquerading as her own life’s reporter. She is, instead, working to register in language the feeling of having been in a certain period of one’s life, a subjective experience of the past, as objectively as possible. It’s this past experience that she wants to preserve and protect from the contaminating (ironic, pathetic, nostalgic) effects of hindsight.

The grammar of the photograph—what Roland Barthes famously called its “having-been-there” appearance—is a clear analog to that of Ernaux’s project. Just as the camera and its subjects were both indisputably there at the scene that the photo captures, testifying to its occurrence, so too was Ernaux there as a child in Yvetot in her parents’ café-grocery (A Man’s Place, 1983), and there in the Passage Cardinet in Paris’s 17th arrondissement, where she received an illegal abortion in 1963 (Happening, 2000). Throughout her books, Ernaux draws on photographs to help her reproduce this quasi-documentary idiom in prose, but the images she describes in writing are not only the physical photographs or celluloid projections she has stored in her personal archive. Her work is not always—or not only—ekphrastic. She also strives to articulate what Proust called the “mental pictures” that these physical ones can help conjure: the scenes of everyday life, sometimes banal, oftentimes violent, that pierce through memory into the present tense of the mind’s eye.

Barthes and Proust are Ernaux’s Virgils through the thicket of personal memory, and her instructors in the art of narrative. Constantly negotiating the folly and limits of her own project, Ernaux presents herself as both brazen and disciplined, both intrepid time-traveler and diligent student of French letters. She tallies her intellectual debts: not only to Barthes and Proust but to the experimental fictions of the Nouveaux Romanciers (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget); the autobiographical essays of ethnographer and surrealist poet Michel Leiris; the inert “write writing” of Albert Camus; and the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil. If all this sounds terribly abstract and a touch esoteric, Ernaux’s writing—including her voiceover script for The Super 8 Years—isn’t. Her sources, even when name-checked, provide only a foundation for her writing’s flat surface, which owes just as much to minor forms of documentation—diaries and scrapbooks, traditionally female genres—as to these major and often macho works of Theory.

Philippe Ernaux’s home movies lie somewhere between these poles. They’re a minor form wielded with the authority of what Ernaux’s voiceover calls “head filmmaker”—a role she “left to him without protest because [she] feared mishandling the equipment, very costly at the time, and maybe too because of a gender-based division of labor established at the start of [their] life together.” This division of labor—Philippe, the looker, and Annie, the looked at—unsurprisingly informs what we see and how we see it. Philippe’s films present the Ernaux children unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning, blowing out birthday candles, and accompanying their parents on vacation. These images are generic and nondescript—ritualized scenes for which an otherwise absent father might reasonably be present, and advertisements for a nuclear family that, by the film’s end, we learn was eventually legally dissolved.

Ernaux’s books typically tell stories with built-in endings: deaths, affairs, abortions, and, as often as not, marriages. The denouement looms as time passes through her narratives, through the pictures that hold its relentless passage in abeyance. She pulls these pictures from personal history, which sometimes intersects with world History (capitalized in her writing). The sense of possibility evoked by these intersections—of feeling oneself in History—is longingly expressed in The Super 8 Years. The family travels to Chile to bear witness to the country’s short-lived socialist reforms under President Salvador Allende (“The images we’d brought back were of a country that no longer existed”); to communist Albania, where they were only allowed to circulate and film within state-sanctioned zones of movement; to post-Franco Spain; and to Soviet Moscow.

Although Ernaux’s narration doesn’t introduce irony or pathos into these scenes, the combination of image and text sometimes does. As her voiceover reports that, on the trip to Spain, she wrote in her journal, “I am superfluous in his life,” the Super 8 projections cut to a bull, mercilessly slain and dragged from an arena at a matador’s feet. In Moscow, the Ernauxs’ faltering marriage is described matter-of-factly—“The family unit collapsed the following year”—against images of a Union that too will collapse within the decade. The viewer might wait for Ernaux to interrupt herself in these moments—to chasten herself, as she does so often in her books, for introducing after-the-fact judgments. But she doesn’t. Instead, she lets montage—and the layering of image and sound—generate commentary and relations between history and History that could only be produced in hindsight, in the editing room.

Ernaux’s writing is most arresting when it functions like a photograph, suspending the reader between moments in time (between “then” and “now”), and between the alienating sensations of identity (between “me” and “not-me”; subject and object; myself and my image). In The Years, she calls her prose style the “mirror image” of photography. The Super 8 Years prolongs the analogy, as text and image reach out asymptotically to horizons of time perpetually on the move: from the present to the receding past, from the past to the ineluctable present. It tells the story of an end—the end of a marriage; the end of an era in history, if not the end of History—that is never really over. After all, it’s still suspended in memory, in writing, and on film.

Anna Shechtman is a Klarman Fellow at Cornell University, where she will begin as an assistant professor of English literature in 2024. Her freelance essays and reviews have appeared in The New YorkerThe New York Review of BooksArtforum, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, where she is an editor-at-large.