Entre Nous

In search of Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux and David Ernaux-Briot, The Super 8 Years, 2022, Super 8, color, sound, 60 minutes.

IN THE WINTER OF 1972, around the time Manhattan gallerygoers were immersing themselves in Memory—a sprawling installation comprising over a thousand tiled photographs and several hours of tape-recorded text amassed by the American poet Bernadette Mayer—the French writer of memory Annie Ernaux and her then-husband, Philippe, bought a Bell and Howell Super 8 camera. Mayer, who died this year and who in life seemed ahead of the future, once imagined “a computer or device that could record everything you think or see, even for a single day”—a thought Ernaux would echo across space and time: “Someday, would we be able to see, imprinted on a person’s brain, everything they had done, said, seen and heard?” And even so, would that suffice? Though Mayer shot a roll of film each day for one month, all the while jotting down and revising her exhaustive impressions, it was the gaps in Memory, like the ghostly zones of a photonegative, that stood out: “emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light, storytelling, walking, and voyaging to name a few.” To name a few! To name everything—everything, that is, worth saving: the so-called empty hours haloing mundane life.

Ernaux would write in later years of her “almost scientific” compulsion to “save everything that has continually been around her . . . to save her circumstance.” But in 1972, just past thirty and still unpublished, her circumstance—teaching at a lycée and mothering her two young sons, Eric and David—curtailed the time she could spend writing. The Super 8 camera represented not a romantic conduit for art-making but a consumer product, arrayed alongside a dishwasher or a color television, that promised to crystallize ephemeral benchmarks (birthdays, vacations, holidays) and fragile domestic fantasies. Because Ernaux balked at mishandling the expensive equipment, she and Philippe slid reflexively into the charged dichotomy of director-muse, though she often levels at the lens a prickly cognizance of his gaze. Philippe, a clean-cut civil servant, appears on-screen only once: posing, cocksure, suntanned. Otherwise he is a roving, disembodied eye—the specter/spectator before which wife and children perform their prescripted parts. In fetishistic pans across the modish interiors of their successive homes, he sets a scene of accumulation and fortresslike security in which his family figures as decor, not unlike the ornate wallpaper, shag throws, and heavy antique furniture. (Ernaux’s aproned mother, who for a period tends to her grandchildren, wryly jibes that she might “clash.”) The couple never inhabits the same frame. When the Ernaux marriage dissolves in the early 1980s, he abandons the projector and five hours of footage and leaves Annie with their cocreated memories.

Annie Ernaux and David Ernaux-Briot, The Super 8 Years, 2022, Super 8, color, sound, 60 minutes.

From these shelf-worn rushes, Ernaux and her son David Ernaux-Briot, alongside editor Clément Pinteaux, have cut the fleet, hour-long film The Super 8 Years. Between 1972 and today, Ernaux has published over twenty books, shifting early on from experiential fictions to lithe, monographic memoirs. In 2008’s The Years, she cast out beyond the autobiographical I and into the swarming multitude of we, one, her, and they in the hopes of hauling back “the memory of collective memory in an individual memory”—the way private and public tangle together, inextricable. To transcribe half a century of postwar French history and culture “from inside her language, which is everyone’s language,” Ernaux subsumes herself in a third-person demotic, or what the English-language translator Alison L. Strayer (who also subtitles The Super 8 Years) calls the je collectif, the collective I, the self as belonging to the world. Midway through the book, she dissects the “new sort of time torn from our life” by the Super 8 camera:

None of the three knows what to do. 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.

Torn, violent, will not stop—Ernaux, who with her children is one of the scene’s trio, seems to resent how the camera thrusts her subjectivity into objecthood, noting her irretrievable loss of unselfconsciousness even as she acquires new forms of self-knowledge. And even as self-knowledge leads her to acquire new forms! In The White Review, Ernaux explains how the process of accumulating and limning old photographs, examining herself from the outside with the dispassion of a stranger, severed her from the first person, too cloistral to ask of oneself: “Who is she?” Such descriptions of images and films suspend the book’s “unremitting continuous tense,” fencing off discrete moments from the narrative flow like a stream pausing in rock-ringed pools or, in her telling cinematic diction, “freeze-frames on memories.”

My eyes snag on the word “freeze-frames,” suggestive of essayistic filmmakers such as Chris Marker (whose La jetée and Sans Soleil surface still images to meditate on memory’s distortions) or her confessed influence Agnès Varda (whose Ulysses excavates the impetus behind a decades-old photograph), and which foregrounds how her writing draws formally on the rhythms and techniques of cinema. In The Years, em dashes jar and rattle off images as in a montage; snug or ample white spaces strew jump cuts or fades across her pages; and Ernaux oscillates between spare, declarative and, as Strayer reflects in her translator’s afterword, “‘breathless’ marathon sentences,” as though to accelerate and decelerate the frame rate.

Annie Ernaux and David Ernaux-Briot, The Super 8 Years, 2022, Super 8, color, sound, 60 minutes.

Much of the momentum in The Years, which animates remembering’s backwardness with a sensation of forward motion, derives from the open question of whether Ernaux will pull off the book we’re reading, “still a draft of thousands of notes,” whose scaffolding she spends decades devising, searching for, obsessing over, and evading, until a grave exigency—she was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer while writing—threatens a deadline. Ernaux always lays bare these fraying seams, the mise en abyme of a text threaded through with the throes of its own making. In the opening minutes of The Super 8 Years, she remarks almost offhandedly that the original footage is silent (until 1973, Super 8 cameras weren’t built to accommodate magnetic soundtracks), cuing us that all its atmospheric sounds were in fact fashioned ex post facto, blurring recollection and reconstruction. Into this absence of “words and . . . the meanings of gestures” comes Ernaux’s steady voice, tugging against the film’s placid, sun-dappled surfaces like a sedulous undertow. A written text must express uncertainty, the truths as tricky to reconcile as positively charged magnets, by looping back upon itself, picking at what’s already been spoken, but in a film the narrative and counternarrative can transpire simultaneously. It’s simply not true to say Ernaux looked happy but was unhappy; she was happy, she was unhappy, she was alive.

Ernaux authored the voice-over alone, taped it in one take on a 100-Euro recorder, and other than Ernaux-Briot recommending they excise her descriptions of on-screen images, the text remained untouched, echoing the lucid, austere “flat writing” for which Ernaux has gained fame. Yet if there is a flatness to her style, it is that of the guillotine, the page (or image) positioned just so beneath an arcing blade. Or maybe it’s the whetted X-Acto knife, stripping away layer after layer of encumbering judgments, sociological and political jargon (one rarely reads the words imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy, or oppression in texts otherwise informed by these issues, though one might encounter the embattled feminist), limp myths and stock narratives, and whatever emotions would muddy her crystalline clarity. Precision, not violence, cuts to the bone. Such austerity, though sometimes shockingly funny, isn’t ironic exactly, though its rare details glimmer, pointed.

Annie Ernaux and David Ernaux-Briot, The Super 8 Years, 2022, Super 8, color, sound, 60 minutes.

Ernaux believed in revolution but settled rigidly into a life that revolution would disrupt; some would call that hypocrisy. Ernaux merely observes, with her “ethnological” dispassion, how history and class collude to create a kind of double vision, limiting our horizons. Herself included. Here’s the writer who missed May-’68 beneath blanketing marriage, children, house, steady job, watching it unfold on television though not much older than its street-taking students. Viewing The Super 8 Years, I find it too easy to forget those ruptures transpired just four years before, as if I should be able to glimpse some small Bruegelian wreck trailing smoke in the distance. When in fact Ernaux, the plowman looking back and reinscribing her lines, makes a point of what she did not see then, willfully or otherwise.

Here the collective we of her voice-over encompasses the individual’s disappearance within the couple, the couple’s subordination to class and history, and our shared culpability for failing to resist the subordinating force of class and history. Yet she achieves this by merely delineating the material reality. Hence we holiday at a Disneyfied faux white-stone village in Morocco (a former French colony), sunning ourselves on sands cordoned off from natives, except silent servants and hired caricatures. We scan the Brutalist cityscapes of Enver Hoxha’s Albania for signs of misery or disorder, while our tour guides, fairly diagnosing our Cold War rubbernecking, restrict what we can film, who we can encounter—certainly not the Albanians. (Ernaux intriguingly wonders whether the mutual blindness fettering West and East only intensified the unreachable glamour of Western, i.e. capitalist, societies.) Strolling Spain, we fear Franco’s phantom, the Basque separatists alleged to puncture tourist’s tires but who must have had other engagements during our stay. In Moscow, the final trip the Ernauxs take together before both unions collapse, we again attempt to espy the unvarnished reality behind red-painted hammers and sickles, lines snaking from Lenin’s mausoleum, and the scarfed woman scrubbing a window, shot as if her labor is remarkable, which it is, but then it would be so anywhere.

We, in other words, struggle to parse history while living within its flux. Ernaux seems resigned to this inevitability even as her project, no less in the film than in her books—to say what was there—requires coming to terms with one’s mortifying myopias. Or, per the Anton Chekhov epigraph fronting The Years: “And it may be that our present life, which we accept so readily, will in time seem strange, inconvenient, stupid, not clean enough, perhaps even sinful.” These sins implicate whole decades, generations, swallowing leftist intentions. In The Super 8 Years, otherwise verdant vistas prefigure the scars sown callously across the twentieth century—pollution, flattening concrete, Thatcherism—darkening the scene before Ernaux sights the clouds scudding across the fields.

Only in Salvador Allende’s Chile, an argent glimmer before the US-backed coup, does she regard what she’s witnessing without shame. It is there, where individual lack is cracked open and transformed into a communal struggle, that Ernaux recalls her childhood vow: “I will write to avenge my people.” Her people were of “peasant origin”—her parents both former factory workers who had left school before their teens, sleeping three to a bed above their café-épicerie in small-town Normandy. Because her family spoke in the local dialect, in childhood Ernaux traveled toward textbook French “like walking down a dark tunnel.” By attending college and training as a literature instructor, she severed herself from the language her parents used to describe their experiences. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, she was awarded for writing texts that her illiterate grandfather would not have been able to read. Yet she never narrativizes her class shift as a linear triumph, instead chipping away at gilded myths of meritocracy that would characterize her as a rule-proving exception. To become a writer, and then to write about her parents, is to move both toward and away from them.

Annie Ernaux and David Ernaux-Briot, The Super 8 Years, 2022, Super 8, color, sound, 60 minutes.

To the writer, the text might seem the central struggle of one’s life, but the process of writing itself often happens in the peripheral, predawn hours. A subplot builds “behind the image of the nondescript young mother”: Annie Ernaux diligently working, writing, becoming Annie Ernaux. Amid lively family gatherings, she’s half-present, mooning over her manuscript poolside, living for those snatches of time when she does not have to teach, when she can think and write, wondering whether her books will be accepted so she can escape this life that itself seems like an escape. She is a woman “at the front lines of time,” from skipped periods to nine months to childcare and its benchmarks, lopsided domestic duties. There is also the “we” of the couple form, the family, the “we” of entangled women. The way the film, by showing everything but her writing, stresses how her writing occurred in the margins of time reminds me of those italicized date ranges at the ends of her texts: an assertion of the time she had to snatch from life for their composition.

When Ernaux’s first novel, Cleaned Out, a fictionalized account of her illegal abortion while a student in the 1960s, is accepted and then published in 1974, she told the New York Times that Philippe fretted: “If you’re capable of writing a book in secret, then you’re capable of cheating on me.” The husband suspects secrecy, so contrary to the complete capture of his camera. That the work of writing blurred with the hated strain of hiding it from her mocking husband might explain why, for Ernaux, “the word private will always suggest deprivation, fear and lack of openness . . . Writing is something public.” The woman chooses when and wear to disrobe herself. (In recent years, she has taken to releasing unexpurgated diaries, perhaps the most extreme rejection of the artificial border between private and public life.) To Philippe she dedicated her subsequent novel, A Frozen Woman (1981), about a harried mother lulled into the uneven rhythms of homemaking despite her early ideals: “No one mourns a young woman’s life; no folklore or songs celebrate it. It doesn’t exist. A useless time.” It’s the useless time she mourns, the eventless stretches no one would dare document, in case of self-indulgence: watching Breathless, reading The Waves, listening to Juliette Greco. Usefulness is what ends up seeming empty.

“A book doesn’t change your life,” Ernaux cautions after the publication of Cleaned Out, “as you hope or believe it will.” You must change your life, as the poem goes. And so Ernaux throws over the marriage plot and divorces herself from fiction. In the process she takes form—not only of language but also of living—seriously. Her next book and first nonfiction work, A Man’s Place (1983), traces her late father’s history without the “artistic approach” or belletrisms that would alienate, sentimentalize, condescend, or abstract an existence “governed by necessity.” In it, Ernaux relates her disappointment when the title L’Expérience des Limites (1968)the experience of limits—turns out to be “only about metaphysics and literature.” For Ernaux, the material limits of art are duty bound to the material limits of life, embedded in time, place, class, and bodies. Her later writing does not lend form to her politics; her politics undergirds her form.

Near the end, The Super 8 Years cuts to black as though to mimic a room darkened in hushed preparation for the projector’s beam. Only then does Annie Ernaux step off-screen along with everything the camera cannot or will not show us: those already dead, the neglected peoples of the Global South, the women laboring in the margins, and memory, if memory means not what we merely record but an inward gesture of retrieval, elusive and invisible. The void thickens; Ernaux speaks, and her language summons back “the light that suffuses faces that can no longer be seen . . . a light from before.” Here, at last, we find what Mayer wished to fix forever in her Memory: the relationship between poetry and light.

The Super 8 Years is currently playing in US theaters.