The collapse of time and domestic memory: Annie Ernaux’s “The Super 8 Years”

“The Super 8 Years” — directed by Annie Ernaux, French writer and winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature — records her domestic life from 1972 to 1981. The film was primarily shot by her then-husband Phillipe Ernaux with a handheld camera, switching between moving and still figures. The film is an introspection of Ernaux’s personal life, where she closely reconsiders her relations to family and history. 

What stands out about “The Super 8 Years” is Ernaux’s narration of her own memories: The film feels exactly like her written works, with an impersonality between lines that almost turns into a detachment from reality and history. In such impersonality, the story of an individual, a family or a group of people is framed and tethered to an omnipotent point of view — a perspective where the narrator scrutinizes events that happened in their life but without the presence of any “self.” That “self” is almost torn from the plot completely. 

While Ernaux tends to eschew “I” for “we” in order to describe the generations before her in her written works, the film presents a full expansion of “I” that dives into her declining family life and, simultaneously, her rising career as a writer. Ernaux’s voice in the film is as impersonal as her writing, yet paired with images it appears to possess more simplicity, monotony and reticence. “Flat writing” has been described as her style; in the film, the flatness becomes an emotionless voice threading the fragments of images. 

“The Super 8 Years” starts with a long shot of natural sceneries, briefly introducing Annie Ernaux’s domestic family background and transitioning into a close portrayal of the family members.

Ernaux commented, “Film truly captures life and people, even if film is silent.” 

This is the power of continuous images that blatantly present the unfiltered reality where decorum is barely utilized: Everything is directly presented to the audience. Images become extremely impactful when one views them as a tool of reminiscence, and nothing is more brutally honest than the direct display of time through the lens. Ernaux’s film contains a nostalgia of a time that has been trapped in a distance, while the happiness of the past seems so remote that it tinges with “a kind of violence,” as she flatly states in the background. Such violence is ineffable but oftentimes natural in the progression of narratives, and it makes Ernaux's flat writing sometimes painful for the audience to conceive. 

The film pauses in the middle, as if it has already become fragmented and irretrievable. Here, with the crescendo of the drizzling, echoing background sound, once-moving images become still and sequentially displayed. Until the sound fades into nature recorded in the footage, images start to flow again. These images appear and disappear and finally fade. 

The video the audience views later is of an antique, tender quality; accompanied by delicate piano notes, it zooms into a closeup of faces — children, on whom older adults project their future imaginations and expectations. Children, who bear the trans-generational memory of colonialism, revolution, war and violence. Children, who know nothing, like adults, were thrown to the battleground of modernity. Children, in the blank moment of silence and between the histories, both familial and epochal, that were cleaved into two. In the film, children's experience substitutes adults’ lack of experience, while in Ernaux’s Nobel-winning novel “The Years," a crueler reality is told: “The time of children replaced the time of the dead.” 

In the same book, Ernaux claims “Our children were our only contemporaries.” Why? We have no answers until we come to the crossroads of movements that displace us from our time. 

“We were mutating. We didn’t know what our new shape would be,” Ernaux wrote in “The Years,” her novel documenting a personal narrative starting in 1941 and ending in 2006. In her film, the same uncertainty was presented. Individuals tangle with a history that rarely favors their sides. The film cuts between the family’s travels over the boundless landscapes of Europe, carrying changes across politics and time, including Moscow’s decline, the communist wave across France, the spread of Chinese industrial productions and Albanian identity. 

A sense of powerlessness pervades in the image. It is the powerlessness of one’s position in history and how, in the burgeoning post-industrial era, one’s fate is tethered to a constantly drifting and never solidified collective identity. 

A deep disempowerment is also shown: Ernaux states that they “could question nothing” and nothing would remain. Ernaux and her contemporaries live under a time of change, yet it also was the time when the collective destiny was largely decided by chance and choice. People found themselves lost in the wave — everything is evolving, nothing seems as stagnant as memory and the past. Everything is irretrievable; Every good thing about that time could be a mirage after the ultimate collapse that comes later. 

It is also the powerlessness of facing temporal yet permanent death — not necessarily of the clinical definition — of past lives and memories. Narratives in “The Super 8 Years” collide with “The Years.” Looking back, Ernaux writes, “One was ready to endure the heartbreak of divorce, the threats, insults, pettiness and living with half the money, ready for anything that would help us discover the desire for a future.” 

She questions over and over again whether there is a future — one with no war, no elections for suckers, no elicited smile of commiseration — with a sense of surprise. Everything is fading, and there is nothing left or upcoming. 

The film ends with video clips of a family trip to Moscow. Ernaux speaks in the same way as she has throughout the film, completely detached from the literary introspection and dissolving into history itself. All the images, grim and massive, turn into an eternal memory. A faded reality. At least for now we could live in the film, walled off from the world — borrowed from Ernaux’s words in “The Years.”


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