Annie Ernaux at the cinema, not so simple

So many books and so few adaptations. Is Annie Ernaux’s work so impressive that filmmakers prefer to keep their distance? Or maybe there are in their drawers a thousand unfinished, unfinished, abandoned scenarios because supposedly not up to the work of the French author?

Even before the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to him, a wave Ernaux had begun to sweep over the seventh art. With the releases of easy passion and The Event in the second half of 2021, it is as if something had finally unlocked. The fresh nobellization of the writer could make others want to bring her work to the screen.

But beware: adapting Annie Ernaux is not given to everyone. His often short, uncluttered books are deceptively simple, and managing to give them a cinematic depth without betraying them is a feat. But it must be admitted that the few adaptations that have seen the light of day have taken up this challenge rather well – even very well.

“The Other”, by Patrick-Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic

Should we introduce Dominique Blanc? This actress of stature, often acclaimed by the profession (four César between 1991 and 2001, all the same), is not exactly a popular actress. Even the Volpi cup (name given to the interpretation prizes awarded at the Venice Festival) received in 2008 for The other didn’t make much noise.

It must be said that the film by Patrick-Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic (filmmakers to whom we also owe The blind spotexcellent variation on the theme of the invisible man) is an uncomfortable, very experimental object, which did not exceed 100,000 admissions when it was released in French cinemas.

It is nevertheless a work to be discovered. Or to rediscover. The other is inspired by Occupation, by Annie Ernaux –recently performed on stage by Romane Bohringer– which recounts a breakup and its consequences, when moving on seems impossible. Left by her lover for another woman, the heroine sinks into an obsessive quest, in search of this Other of whom she knows nothing.

This obsession, the two directors push it to its climax, breaking the narrative lines and signing a film that sometimes resembles a work of contemporary art. In the heart of a cold and geometric city, the character of Dominique Blanc advances like a robot, filled with misfortune and eager for destruction. A striking work, often destabilizing, which transforms the prose of Annie Ernaux with intelligence.

“Simple Passion”, by Danielle Arbid

Revealed by Young woman, a prodigious column that won Léonor Serraille the Camera d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Lætitia Dosch is perhaps the most interesting actress of our time. His ability to vary emotions, to go from laughter to tears in the same shot, is absolutely exceptional. On her own, Lætitia Dosch is capable of giving a film its color. And Danielle Arbid was not mistaken.

The French director of Lebanese origin, to whom we owe the superb A lost man and Afraid of nothinghere adapts one of Annie Ernaux’s most famous books. easy passion recounts the relationship that united the author to a married man living abroad, and makes passion and obsession rhyme. Places, waiting, absence, mad desire: when Ernaux writes on these themes, it is as if she were the first to do so, so precise are her descriptions, without filters, between permanent self-analysis and self-surrender. And all this in so few words.

The whole essence of the book is present in Danielle Arbid’s film. The emotion of Lætitia Dosch, always on edge, is contagious; his desire for this man, embodied by the Ukrainian actor Sergei Polunin, is also. Since when hadn’t sex and bodies been filmed so well? It’s hard to say. But easy passion is also a film about influence, that exercised by a man who only uses a woman to satisfy his own desires, and who asks himself far fewer questions than her.

Like Annie Ernaux, Danielle Arbid also recounts the writing, the way her heroine looks at this man and their passion, and decides to turn that into words. easy passion is also a book, and therefore a film, about writing. How to record events, sensations? How not to miss the essential, not to let it evaporate? This faithful adaptation – which in no way prevents it from having soul – offers captivating answers.

“The Event”, by Audrey Diwan

In 2021, Audrey Diwan won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. A prestigious award for an important film. Adapted from the book of the same name, published by Annie Ernaux in 2000, The Event tells the story of a pregnancy to be terminated. That of Anne (the incredible Anamaria Vartolomei, Caesarized for the role), a student of letters promised to a bright future, who in this year 1963 discovers to her great dismay that she is pregnant.

At that time, abortion was still illegal in France – the Veil law dates back to 1975. Determined not to see her life ruined by a motherhood she did not want – at least not at this stage of her life – , Anne then begins an obstacle course to try to access abortion, knowing that anyone who lends her a hand risks a prison sentence.

This story is universal: it could take place in other countries, in other times, including our own. It could also take place in the France of tomorrow, certain increasingly well-established political forces being fiercely opposed to abortion. But it is also her own story that Annie Ernaux tells in The Eventrelying on his diaries of the time to reconstruct his experience at the time.

Audrey Diwan’s film is a bit of the anti 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, the sordid Palme d’or by Romanian Cristian Mungiu, who used clandestine abortion for suspense purposes, filming certain episodes in a truly obscene way. On the contrary, here is a work favoring the ellipse without looking away, in order to highlight above all the obstinacy necessary to carry out this project. Every unwanted pregnancy being a prison, The Event is an escape movie.

The movie that doesn’t exist: “Look at the lights my love”

On the side of fiction, The other, easy passion and The Event are the only three official adaptations of writings by Annie Ernaux. The documentary has also been there, with I liked living there, a documentary by Régis Sauder dedicated to the town of Cergy, where the writer has lived for half a century. Thanks to a fortuitous meeting, Sauder ends up relying on what Ernaux wrote about his city to compose a portrait of real strength.

Still visible in some theaters (it was released at the beginning of September) and available on the Arte website until October 31, The Super-8 years is made up of archives shot in Super-8 by Annie Ernaux and her family between 1972 and 1981. Helped by her son David Ernaux-Briot, the author puts some order in these silent images, which she comments to tell both his world and the world.

Which side would lean Look at the lights my love if it was adapted to the cinema? This short diary dedicated to hypermarkets, places that are never filmed enough, could make a great film. We would see Annie Ernaux – or her fictional double – surveying the shelves, observing the flow of customers, scrutinizing the queues, the relaxation areas, those promotional ones dedicated to the Wine Fair. A long stroll conducive to sociological analysis, reverie and digressions. In the main role, Marina Foïs. And nobody else.

So many books by Annie Ernaux, The frozen woman to Yearsare waiting to be adapted, to find the director (the director?) who will be able to give them substance and prolong them on the screen autosociobiographythis literary genre of which some claim that she is the creator.

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Annie Ernaux at the cinema, not so simple