‘The Super 8 Years’ Review: Annie Ernaux’s Home Videos Offer a Tender Glimpse of Her True Life’s Work

Every time Annie Ernaux looks to camera in “The Super 8 Years,” her face holds a beguiling combination of calm, disappointment, impatience, and acquiescence. She is looking at her ex-husband (and father of her two children) Philippe, who she was with for 17 years. It was his idea to get a Bell & Howell Super 8 camera right before the family moved to Annecy in their 30s with their boys, then 7 and 10. Philippe was the self-determined “head filmmaker,” but Annie is the one ultimately tasked and trusted with making sense of this footage decades later, and of finding meaning and faith in the disappearing world it immortalized.

Philippe’s footage doesn’t necessarily hold the key to a new way of filming or a tragically undiscovered cinematographer. Out of context, these family videos are as interesting to strangers as overhearing somebody’s phone call on the bus or train might be. Glimmers of gossip might come to light occasionally, but the intimacy and fundamental interest are reserved for those orbiting the person filming or speaking, and them alone.

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But something happens when Annie resurrects these images. She and Philippe divorced not exclusively because of this, but it was after realizing that the footage was dramatically changing. It wasn’t just capturing fading civilizations anymore, across the family’s trips to Morocco, Albania, Moscow, London and more, but the fabric of the family itself was starting to fray. So much was disappearing from the frame: the literal appearance of Annie and the boys, the emotional tether that made the early images feel so much more tender, a rare constant in a shifting world.

This realization grows slowly in the film, as it would if you spent nearly two decades thinking you were building something with one hand while reaching out to your loved ones with the other, only to later discover you’d trying and failing to catch thin air for years. That sad conclusion can only arise with hindsight, and so much of “The Super 8 Years” can feel like a straightforward and perhaps unexceptional time capsule until it cracks open universal questioning on what memory — and film — can save from the rubble.

Ernaux was awarded the 2022 Novel Prize in Literature “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.” in “The Super 8 Years.” The film is ever so loosely reminiscent of Laura Poitras’ recent portrait of photographer Nan Goldin in “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed,” specifically in the way both films lean on the animated nature of cinema to force viewers to consider the thoughts, words, and art of these women as impossibly alive, at last.

Goldin speaks of taking photographs of people so that we don’t forget them, in order to keep the dead very much alive. Ernaux notes that women are often “on the frontlines of time” as she watches her son blow out his 10th birthday candles with a bittersweet melancholy that this exact celebration will not happen again. It’s about filming “what you will never see twice,” which while living it feels unexceptional until you can only hold onto that as a relic.

The film also leans into a compelling recent trend of dissatisfied women in their 30s who are questioning when their lives will really begin. Ernaux, narrating, comments on her own expression as it changes over the years, looking back at Philippe. “The woman in the image always seems to wonder why she’s there,” the narrator notes of herself, unsure what conclusion to take beyond finally accepting the fact that she’s not convinced that her destiny as a caretaker in this family is enough. It’s what moves Julie forward in Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person In The World,” perhaps that acknowledgment of uncertainty being enough when finally daring to consider enjoyment as a duty and saying out loud that you feel like a spectator in your own life.

Ernaux has nothing to teach us, per se, about what to do with the broken pieces or how to fix them. It’s just a relief to share them. It is a privilege to be invited into the world of this peerless writer with unparalleled emotional intelligence who is brave enough to point to every part of her life that, to some extent, failed. It is an enormous responsibility to be given the title of “guardian” of an entire past life, as Philippe designated Annie when he left with the camera, leaving the reels and the projector for Annie to determine whether any part of all those years was worth remembering at all. In the end, it becomes a lesson in observation, patience, and grace when accepting how much has changed. Ernaux’s words have changed the world before — here, they thoughtfully come to life.

Grade: B

Kino Lorber will release “The Super 8 Years” in select theaters on Friday, December 16.

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