Ross McElwee continues his Socratic mandate of living a fully examined life with the assured and insightful “Photographic Memory,” in which the inevitable sojourn into his past once again helps him understand the present and brace for the future. In the quarter-century since “Sherman’s March” announced the helmer’s droll wit and fearless instinct for turning an unblinking lens on his life’s minutiae, he’s nurtured a faithful fest and ancillary aud (via longtime domestic distrib First Run Features) that can be counted on to remember and spread the word.
In his 1993 docu “Time Indefinite,” McElwee and his wife have a son, Adrian. The boy has subsequently popped up in two of his father’s films, “Bright Leaves” (2003) and “In Paraguay” (2008).
Now a media-savvy young adult with the requisite attitude, Adrian here provokes Dad’s half-hearted ire and complete consternation, to the point where the elder McElwee decides to revisit a seaside French town where he’d worked for a time when he was about his son’s age, in order to glean some insight into their friction. Once there, memories of courting the vivacious Maud Corbel-Rouchy spur the inevitable search to reconnect with his former flame.
The pic’s pleasures are subtle yet resonant, as the helmer slowly but with quiet determination ties these two strands together, to his satisfaction as well as the audience’s.
There’s an appealingly elegiac feel to both stories: In France, he compares his old photographs with the locations today, and his eventual rapprochement with Corbel-Rouchy over her sauteed frogs’ legs is quite moving. Once home, he seems to have gathered the requisite strength to let Adrian, to whom the pic is dedicated, be Adrian. “Seriously, how did I get to be this old?” he wonders at one point, undoubtedly verbalizing what his longtime viewers must be thinking as well.
As befits McElwee’s one-man-band strategy, the tech package is refreshingly straightforward and unfussy. Pic reps his first digitally shot endeavor, which of course prompts an onscreen elegy to the enduring pleasures of film.