Time grows ever more indefinite for autobiographical documentarian Ross McElwee. His melancholic new film Photographic Memory finds him contemplating a daunting question: “Seriously: How did I get to be this old?” Now in his 60s and frustrated and confused by his college-age son Adrian’s increasingly obnoxious behavior, McElwee finds himself reflecting on his own past as an aimless twentysomething, when he briefly lived in France, working as the assistant to a philosophical photographer named Maurice and romancing a beautiful young woman named Maud. Curious what happened to these two key figures from his life, he travels back to Brittany to try to find them.
As in his previous work, McElwee serves as his own subject, cameraman, interviewer and narrator, drawling his way through Brittany past and present; making new friends and sifting through his memories—both photo- and neurochemical—of the old ones he’s lost. It’s a personal journey, but one that speaks to universal ideas about aging, fatherhood and the way, as Maurice once put it, that “time wears on a photograph, erodes it, until all of its context is gone.” McElwee’s quietly reassuring voice dominates the film, but that doesn’t mean he can’t craft a magnificently eloquent image when he wants to, as in the moment when he frames Adrian, seated in a coffee shop, inside his own reflection in the shop’s front window.
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