The Super 8 Years: Annie Ernaux’s scenes from a marriage

Over seemingly banal home movie footage of domestic life, Nobel-prize winning author Annie Ernaux recounts the beginnings of her writing career, and the end of her marriage.

22 June 2023

By Catherine Wheatley

Annie Ernaux in The Super 8 Years © Courtesy of Curzon
Sight and Sound

Words and pictures compete for attention in Annie Ernaux and David Ernaux-Briot’s The Super 8 Years, a documentary that condenses almost a decade into an hour to tell the story of Ernaux’s deteriorating marriage and blossoming career as a writer. Over home movies of Ernaux’s domestic life with her then-husband Philippe Ernaux and sons David and Eric, Ernaux recounts her memories of the period, offering her version of this “family fiction to which each member would later add a subtext”. 

The clash between the written word and the photographic image is exaggerated for non-French speakers, who must read Ernaux’s soliloquy as it moves through the lower third of the screen. Elegantly translated by Alison Strayer (whose translation of Ernaux’s The Years was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize), the subtitles render the voiceover in full, with none of the usual compression, and forcing the viewer – here also a reader – to flutter their gaze between words and images. It’s a deliberate and clever strategy for capturing the two points of view that shape the film. Ernaux tells us that Philippe was the family’s “head-filmmaker”: these are his images, shot without sound. Her words are necessary “to give meaning to this silent time”. 

And so, she decodes for us these apparently anodyne snapshots of the usual minor events in a family’s life – birthdays, Christmases, trips abroad – pointing out the ways in which they reveal and conceal certain truths about Philippe’s world-view. A story of class mobility and female displacement unfolds. The Ernaux family are relative newcomers to the bourgeoisie, a fact that delights Philippe but leaves Annie uneasy. Philippe’s camera is both a sign of this new-found affluence and a witness to it. It caresses the borrowed objets d’art tastefully placed throughout the well-appointed apartment that comes with his government job. Ernaux’s mother, meanwhile, a former shopkeeper, is cross that she “clashes with the decor”. 

The author herself hovers at the edges of the screen: recalling feeling ill at ease with her more sophisticated in-laws and disappointed that the life of equality she envisaged has not come to pass. On holidays she is just briefly glimpsed: while the boys explore outside, she sequesters herself, reading and writing in the hotel room, carving out a secret life of which she does not speak. Later, she disappears from the image almost entirely. 

In the film’s most visceral moment, shot during a trip to Pamplona, a matador and a bull dance around one another in seemingly endless circles until, finally, the bull drops and its carcass is dragged from the area. “I’m superfluous in Philippe’s life,” Ernaux comments over the image. “Dramatically absent”. The film stock seems to deteriorate alongside the marriage, becoming stained and patchy in the film’s later sections. Family holidays punctuate the film, suggesting that Ernaux’s experiences are symptomatic of a spirit of the times that extends beyond the home or even her native France. 

David Ernaux-Briot and Eric Ernaux
© Courtesy of Curzon

The period the film covers – roughly speaking, the 1970s – is a boomtime of global travel and urbanisation, a moment before fears of global warming and environmental collapse took hold. The Ernaux family take a socialist tour of Allende’s Chile, and enjoy a Disneyfied resort stay in Tangiers, where they experience a simulacrum of African life. They visit Albania, the Ardèche, Spain, London, Moscow. They purchase a little studio in the mountains and learn to ski, fulfilling another of Philippe’s aspirations. Then, Ernaux wanted to offer her children experiences she never had. Now, she is ambivalent about what has been left behind, both personally and historically. The things they film, Annie says, they will never see twice. So many of the people, places and relations captured here – communist regimes, city skylines, the Ernaux marriage – no longer exist. 

Philippe’s film and Annie’s words inhabit not only different eras but also different worlds. Responses to the film will be shaped by the viewer’s familiarity with Ernaux’s Nobel-prize winning body of work, which recounts aspects of her life in careful detail, adding up to a multi-faceted portrait of a woman who is both utterly singular and symbolic of shifting times and social mores. Those who have read 1987’s Une femme, for example, will feel an uncanny jolt of recognition at the sight of Ernaux’s mother, Blanche, rendered so forensically on the page that photographs seem superfluous, and yet suddenly, vividly here before our eyes. The same is true of Philippe Ernaux (never just “Philippe”), better looking and more imposing than in Ernaux’s many literary descriptions of him, and most poignantly of Ernaux herself: lean and tanned, with the slight stoop familiar to tall women and professional writers. Still the film stands on its own merits. 

A Scenes from a Marriage in miniature, it offers a riveting insight into the irreconcilability of different perspectives – those of husbands and wives, of course, but also those of our past, present and future selves. It also sits alongside Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun (2022) as a gorgeous, wistful reminder of the unreliability of both objective and subjective histories. Like that film, its power lies in the tension between recorded and remembered events – between two versions of the same story, both of which are true, neither of which are complete. 

And there is yet another account here, a third presence that haunts the film. Annie’s son David Ernaux-Briot, credited as director, has assembled these images and brought them to life, interpolating a delicate soundtrack into Philippe’s photos and Annie’s words. Layered between footage and descriptions of a bike ride, a swim, a party are the phantom sounds of a bell ringing, water splashing, the hum of polite small talk. Like David, and his brother Eric, this soundtrack is unremarkable but ever present. 

Over the course of the film the pair grow from small boys mugging for the camera into young men shifting awkwardly under its gaze. Looking at their sullen faces, one wonders about the traces that this period has left on them, the subtexts that they will read into these images. The marriage ends, the career takes off, but off screen, life goes on. Since Philippe took the camera and left only the footage from these nine bittersweet years, we’re left to imagine what that might look like for the generations to follow.

 ► The Super 8 Years arrives in UK cinemas on 23 June and will be available to steam on Curzon Home Cinema

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