Watching this film just a day after spending nearly five hours watching Jonas Mekas’ 2000 film “As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty” made for an interesting contrast. Both films mine home movies for their beauty and their intimacy. However, where Mekas largely allows the images to speak for themselves, Ernaux’s film relies heavily on her writerly narration. Ernaux does not just describe every image, like in her novels, she adds a layer of self-reflection that can only come from a distance. Where Mekas purposely focuses his films on moments of happiness, Ernaux insists on breaking the spell cast by the images, describing the pain beneath the idyllic surfaces.
Both films speak to the nature of the artists who made them. But while it is admirable that Ernaux brings the same raw honesty of her writing, the experience of such heavy narration often undercuts the documentary as a whole, rendering what could have been cinematically transcendent, a mere intellectual exercise.
Much of the imagery in “The Super 8 Years” was shot by Phillipe rather than Ernaux or David, whose lives at this time are subjects of his gaze, which becomes a key element of Ernaux’s narration. For David, this project allows him to revisit his childhood with the eyes – and reflection – of an adult, while for Ernaux she can bring agency and depth to her images of herself. During these years Phillipe’s studies and jobs brought them to Annecy, where Ernaux worked as a teacher, hiding both her wild desire to write and her actual writing from everyone in the family unit.
As intellectual, non-conformist leftists in a post-May 1968 France, both Ernaux and her husband aimed to give their children a life filled with more adventure and consciousness-raising than their own childhoods had afforded them. Captured along with everyday family life, Christmases, and birthdays, there is footage of family trips, including a bourgeois stay at a resort in Morocco, a trip to soviet Chile before a US-backed coup, Stalinist-Maoist Albania, pre-Thatcher England, and even Soviet Moscow. With each trip, Ernaux both describes their intentions at the time, but also the historical and cultural contexts she may have only understood long after their visits ended. The context and reflections are interesting but sometimes veer towards a pretension that is uniquely ingrained in well-meaning white liberalism.