Reelin’ in the Years

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On Annie Ernaux’s The Super 8 Years, and a lifetime of stowin’ away the time

“Now society had a name, ‘consumer society,’” Annie Ernaux writes in her 2008 opus The Years:

Spending was in the air. There was a resolute appropriation of leisure goods […] Television sets were turned in for newer models. The world looked more appealing on the color display, interiors more enviable. Gone was the chilly distance of black-and-white, that severe, almost tragic negative of daily life.

Advertising provided models for how to live, behave, and furnish the home. […] And we who were undeceived, who seriously examined the dangers of advertising with our students; we who assigned the topic ‘Does the possession of material goods lead to happiness?,’ bought a stereo, a Grundig radio-cassette player, and a Bell & Howell Super-8 camera, with a sense of using modernity to intelligent ends. For us and by us, consumption was purified.

The ideals of May ’68 were being transformed into objects and entertainment.

The Years is an “impersonal autobiography,” in Ernaux’s words, an interwoven memoir and history of France from 1940, the year of her birth, up to the present. Both streams, the individual and national, flow inexorably away from provincial, working-class beginnings, forged through hardship and unchanging folkways and marked by memories of war and scarcity — Ernaux’s mother left school at age twelve and a half to work, Ernaux writes in A Woman’s Story, “in a margarine factory where she suffered from the cold and the damp, her wet hands developing chilblains that stayed with her all winter” — and toward the modern world. 

As well, both streams build toward the radical political and intellectual aspirations that sparked the ’68 upheavals, and then fall away from them, caught up in the compromises of adult life in the Common Market — or, in Ernaux’s case, in the “new town” built in the fields outside Paris where she has lived since the 1970s, a consumer paradise not in the black and white of the old dark France and tattered family photos, but in the luxurious artificial colours rendered by that Bell & Howell Super-8 camera. The Super 8 Years, directed by Ernaux and her son David Ernaux-Briot, is a film assembled from the footage of the Ernaux family filmed on that camera. It is a bittersweet reminiscence of a decisive period in Ernaux’s life, where she jealously nurtured her ambitions lest they be “transformed into objects and entertainment,” and struggled to hang on to herself lest she be absorbed into “consumer society.”

There is no “I” in The Years. There is a “we,” who shop, who march, who marry and divorce, read and write, whose experiences are part of a collective memory; and a “she,” whose subjectivity is locked somewhere in the archive. Ernaux holds the past at arm’s length even when reaching back into it. The use of family photographs as aide-mémoire is a recurrent motif in the book: Ernaux will frequently describe the appearance of “the woman in the picture,” reporting only what can be seen with the naked eye. Here is how she describes the woman in the first images filmed by her then-husband Phillippe Ernaux, shortly after he purchased the Bell & Howell Super-8 camera in 1972:

A woman enters, wearing a long brown fitted coat, her face hidden by the hood. She carries two cardboard boxes stacked one on top of the other. Grocery items protrude at the top. She pushes the door closed with her shoulder. Disappears from the frame, reappears without the boxes and removes her coat, which she hangs on a “parrot” coatrack. She turns toward the camera with a quick smile, and then looks down, dazzled by the brightness of the magnesium lamp. She is verging on skinny, wears little makeup, brown Karting trousers — close-fitting, no fly — and a brown-and-yellow-striped sweater. Her light brown shoulder-length hair is pulled back with a barrette. There is something ascetic and sad, or disenchanted, in her expression. The smile comes too late to be spontaneous. Her gestures reflect an abruptness of manner and/or nervousness. 

Note the cautious deduction of the “and/or,” the searching “there is something in her expression” — tentative probes at the skin of a person who is both her and not her. Anything beyond that would be speculative, and Ernaux gives the appearance, at least, of total scrupulousness in avoiding speculation, part of her overarching metaliterary inquiry into the limitations of memory. 

All her books re-create parts of her past from the evidence available, primarily from her detailed diaries as well as from photographs and the films assembled into The Super 8 Years (by the younger of the two boys in the footage). Sometimes, one such old photo graces the cover of her book, but in the case of The Super 8 Years, the primary sources are present alongside Ernaux’s narration. It’s as if we’re watching her work of remembering happen in real time, with her voiceover allusions to what’s “behind the image” an echo of her books’ insistence on the unbridgeable gap between interior and exterior, public and private. Reflecting on footage of a family vacation to Chile, shortly before the coup that ousted Salvador Allende, Ernaux says that “the images we’d brought back were of a country that no longer existed” — but aren’t they always. The footage is silent, but the film is not: along with his mother’s voice, Ernaux-Briot adds artificial ambient sound, birdsong and crashing surf, white noise to drown out the roar of the void.

As the years roll past, Ernaux’s narration in The Super 8 Years is triggered by many of the same milestones as in The Years, drawing as it does from the same diaries and the same mind’s engagement with the world. Alongside the decline of her marriage and the rise of her profile as an author, she recounts politics and pop: the inevitable disappointments of the Left in election after election and the guillotining of the child-killer Christian Ranucci despite the outcry of a populace turning against capital punishment; the sweet nostalgia of Joe Dassin’s “Indian Summer” (in The Years she mentions the singer’s shocking early death) and the boys’ precious Iron Maiden tapes. The film seems deeper, rather than redundant, for covering so much of the same ground as the books. It adds another layer of meaning to the dreamy footage of the family’s new home in the newly built suburb of Cergy-Pontoise to know how Ernaux writes, in The Years, about this “place without a past,” where only the three-story shopping centre feels real. Toggling between book and film one feels Ernaux’s effort to shape and refine overwhelming waves of recalled experience.

In The Years, Ernaux observes of the first reel of film that “the camera jumps to elements of the décor that display aesthetic and market value, reveal bourgeois taste: a chest, a hanging lamp made of opaline glass.” And so it does. Ernaux in the film makes a similar observation, this time singling out the “ornate and trendy wallpaper” as she notes Phillippe’s habit of filming the furnishings of every home the couple lived in. The auteur of this domestic mise-en-scène, he would catalogue the possessions that confirmed their status as “newcomers to the bourgeoisie.” (Though Ernaux doesn’t push the parallel, it’s significant that her husband almost always handled the camera, making her part of the survey of possessions — the nuclear family as the ultimate achievement of “a resolute appropriation of leisure goods.”)

“It was disconcerting,” Ernaux writes in The Years, “to see ourselves for the first time on the pull-down screen in the living room.” Scanning the surface of an image, as she would later do when writing her books, she finds herself “amazed by ourselves, by our gestures and movements. […] We did not let on how greatly it disturbed us, and preferred to watch others on screen, relatives and friends, who more resembled what they already looked like to us.”

This disconnect, between what one knows about oneself, and what the world knows, is one way of phrasing the central existential and literary conundrum Ernaux analyses through her work; crucially, given her connection to the feminist movement, it is also her central political preoccupation, a question of women’s ability to express their inner lives in the world. “Behind the image” of The Super 8 Years is the young Ernaux’s literary career, which takes flight over the course of the film. On one or two occasions, her husband catches her hunched over a desk and films her for a few moments, but the first decade of Annie Ernaux’s career as an author is almost entirely unseen here, a counterlife, just as the major battles of the women’s movement are outside the purview of the film’s many nuclear-familial scenes.

Ernaux is conscious as well, in her voiceover, that the bourgeois life portrayed onscreen represents a severing of her ties with her working-class origins. Her mother appears in the film, “clashing with the décor” in a housedress and apron, a walking reminder of another time, conjuring with her peasant stolidity “memories of war restrictions” even in her daughter’s all-mod-cons kitchen. As a young woman, Ernaux vowed to become an author, writing in her diaries, “I will write to avenge my people” — the most famous sentence of her career, it is repeated, not for the first time, in The Super 8 Years, and was the organising phrase of her Nobel Lecture this winter. Through education — “intellectual gentrification” is her phrase in The Years — she would transcend the inferior, derided class of her birth. She would master the rarified speech of her class’s oppressors—not merely so that she could join a higher class and leave her people behind, but so she could tell their story. As long as she wrote.

Looking back at footage of Christmas 1972, Ernaux sees — behind the blue wrapping paper, the yellow battery-powered robot, her sons’ matching red cowboy vests, all colours saturated with the innocent excitement of Super 8 film — hints of her real self, neither a child of peasants nor a bourgeoise housewife and mother, but an author, who amidst the festivities was thinking only of the novel she was working on. She wrote in secret. 

Ernaux stayed true to her ideals, at least in her heart. She was the only one in her family, she notes, who never skiied, despite the rising fad for winter sports among those who could afford it; though the family bought a ski condo, and vacationed annually, she was a bystander to the tradition, staying inside to read and write. (As her sons whoosh down the slopes in their parkas and pom-pom caps, one does think of Ernaux’s co-director, revisiting memories of learning to ski with his older brother, moments of physical exhilaration and family togetherness which must, conversely, be a great pleasure for him to remember.)

“A book,” Ernaux says in the film, “doesn’t change your life.” Her work, which situates the mundane against a vast historical backdrop, the hum of constant TV news reports juxtaposed with family outings, implies something about how we appropriate the narratives of history to impose meaning on our own lives. This is a matter of some urgency for the many lives lived on the margins — in the suburbs — of the great events of the age. In The Years she seems often frustrated and isolated, writing that she “nearly wept with rage to see Simone Veil defend herself alone in the Assemblée against raging men of her own camp” — that “alone” must have stung so desperately for Ernaux, a confirmation of her worst fears. At a Q&A following a screening of the film at last fall’s New York Film Festival, Ernaux noted that she was in fact active in France’s movement for abortion rights during the period of The Super 8 Years. And yet viewing footage of herself playing miniature golf with her husband’s family — the men in rayon flares, the women in bouffants — Ernaux in her narration ponders that “the young woman with long hair, sandals, a seventies dress and abrupt gestures, may, at this moment, forget to feel out of place in a family of in-laws where all the wives are homemakers.”

In The Years, Ernaux directly describes how her home movies made her forget to feel out of place. The description of the woman in the brown Karting trousers and brown-and-yellow-striped sweater, on reels of film labelled Family Life ’72–’73, flows into a reckoning with her appearance “on the outside” as defined by women’s magazines, her days defined and filled by errands and shopping, her nagging sense of having been too old already for the social revolutions of ’68, and her confession that “she has started to imagine herself outside of conjugal and family life.”

But how can that imagination be as real as the reels saying “Family Life” right there on the canister? How can an unrealised hope, or an ephemeral memory, be as real as daily domestic duties or the bright hard facts of posterity?

“1968 was the first year of the world,” Ernaux writes in The Years, but it’s passed by the time The Super 8 Years begins. More typical of the period covered in the film is this passage:

Union posters in the staff room again announced that the strike of such-and-such a day to protest the “deterioration of our working conditions” would “force the State to retreat.” The way we imagined the future was limited to drawing boxes around the days of vacation in our date books, starting from the beginning of September. 

Reading Charlie Hebdo and Libération sustained our belief in belonging to a community of revolutionary pleasure and working, in spite of everything, towards a new May ’68.

Again the self is split, between political struggle and longed-for vacations; belief is sustained “in spite of everything” through passive consumption. 

Being home movies, The Super 8 Years is, as Ernaux narrates, primarily a compilation of “happy moments and beautiful things,” and features more vacations than strikes. The Ernauxs settled into the post-WWII middle class just in time to be tempted by the newly accessible luxury of air travel, a temptation they resisted, up to a point, by prioritising virtuous and educational travel. (“For us and by us, consumption was purified.”) Phillippe pans the camera across a waiting SwissAir DC-8 as if it’s a new piece of furniture, but the couple “didn’t just want to lie on the beach like idiots” — they went to Allende’s Chile. It is presumably a trip to Albania, shown in The Super 8 Years, that inspires The Years’s passage about trips to the Eastern bloc, “among the State stores with their penurious no-name stock, wrapped in coarse grey paper,” which, Ernaux continues, conjure memories of the lost world of her impoverished 1940s childhood, a beautiful, ineffable nostalgia, though one she is happy to leave behind again, returning to the abundant West with an armful of souvenirs.

The film, and the 1970s, concludes with two shocking twists representing the ironic reward of Ernaux’s “sustained belief,” her jealously nurtured aspirations. One is the election, described over footage of a family trip to Portugal, of François Mitterrand: the first man of the Left to preside over the Fifth Republic after decades of thwarted hopes, but a hollow anticlimax with a long, bitter aftertaste following his turn to austerity and privatisation in 1983, and his decisive role in the formation of the neoliberal EU. Like many of the Left, Ernaux voted against the Maastricht Treaty, whose legacy she reflects on in the film during the Albania trip: since the fall of the Iron Curtain, she narrates, it’s seen an influx of beachgoing EU tourists and an outflow of Albanians who have become economic migrants chasing the neoliberal promise of prosperity, what Ernaux and tourists like her “made them want” once upon a time.

The other twist is one last family vacation: to Moscow. The footage is uncharacteristically degraded, a fitting visual rhyme with memories that scarcely seem believable to Ernaux. She sees the monumental buildings, the tiny workers, and feels, she narrates, “as if the weight of 20th century history had converged and unfurled in the space of a second all images of Russia accumulated since childhood” — but it’s too late, the trip is too short, to save a marriage that despite the currents of idealism that coursed through it, despite the shared love of Sartre and Antonioni she writes of in A Woman’s Story, despite the trips to Chile and Albania, fell into the same bourgeois patriarchal trap. The footage of Moscow is chronologically the last in the film; after the trip, the Ernaux divorce was finalised. Phillippe took the camera, perhaps to film his new life with his second wife; Annie kept the film canisters, perhaps to remember a lost decade.

The Years and The Super 8 Years, with their twinned titles, gesture towards Ernaux’s grand, ambivalent project, which is her struggle to locate herself definitively within the flow of time. One major difference in how the film and the book approach this struggle is, to put it glibly, simply the clothes. In her poly-blend floral-print mini-dresses or “hippie-chic” overcoat, in those brown Karting trousers and brown-and-yellow-striped sweater, Ernaux seems a woman perfectly of her era. It is easier to find yourself in the past — you see the continuities between yourself and the world in retrospect, rather than feel the discontinuities between them in the moment. And sometimes the discontinuities are nothing of the kind: her inner monologue of domestic discontent, her anxiety lest she be cut off from the work that would validate her ambitions, ironically place Ernaux in the centre of a momentous history of women who felt as she felt, secretly at first and then not so secretly. Perhaps the homemakers playing miniature golf were also people in need of avenging. The “objects and entertainment” Ernaux self-critically describes in the book and displays in the movie, evidence of her wary absorption into the bourgeoisie, become a scrupulous document of alienation and the advance of consumer society. Through her and by her, consumption is purified.
And so, the woman who was disconcerted to see herself for the first time on the pull-down screen in the living room. The Years ends with a list of things to “save,” a bullet-pointed shopping list for one last spree through the superstore of memory. Images and impressions, snippets of verse and snapshots from memory from across time and space, all flicker past the reader in a montage — like the one that ends The Super 8 Years, a torrent of the evidence of a life, and of a life’s work that has at last allowed Annie Ernaux to say, as she does in the film’s closing moments, “That was me.”