ORDINARY VICTORIES is the story of Marco, a war photographer looking for a little peace of mind. Done with taking pictures of victims of violence and starvation, he returns to his home country of France hoping to find a new clarity in life. This search is complicated though by the everyday struggles of normal life and Marco's tendency to collapse into violent panic attacks at a moment's notice.
Marco is kind of a jerk. But he is also relatable and identifiable. He's anxious, frustrated creatively, has trouble connecting with others, socially conscious but has no idea what to do about it. The world only makes sense to him through his photographs, and when he takes a months long respite from his work, he finds himself feeling more lost than ever. His biggest flaw, perhaps, is his inability to truly see beyond himself. He looks at everything through his lens, and though he may think that offers him insight, he's still only looking at things from his side of the camera.
ORDINARY VICTORIES consists of four books (collected in English in two volumes). The characters are drawn cartoony (big-foot style) against the backdrop of a beautifully rendered, full color France. I'll talk more about the art, because it is gorgeous, later. Scattered through out the books are one page, 8 panel, sepia toned segments. Drawn in a sketchy but much more realistic style than the rest of the book, these pages are also more poetic—bordering on elegy-- as we get a more clear insight into Marco's thoughts: ruminations about death, relationships, fatherhood, grief, anxiety, overlaid some of Marco's photography. It makes it even more clear just how important Marco's work is to him and his attempts to understand the world. But it also shows how his photography is just as much about trying to find some sort of important truth in himself as it is in his subjects.
Marco begins three new relationships in ORDINARY VICTORIES. The first is a new friendship with a kindly but enigmatic old man who lives near him. The second is with a veterinarian, Emily, he begins dating. And the third is with his late father. It's these three people and their impact during a period of change in Marco's life that most affects him.
And if there's one thing Marco is bad at, it's change. It's the scenes with Emily that most highlight this. Marco is content (or as content as Marco knows how to be) to continue living their life together as is. He likes his drafty little cottage in the country side. He's terrified of the idea of moving in together, or of having children, and this fear makes him shortsighted when it comes to his relationship.
If I have one criticism of ORDINARY VICTORIES, it's that Emily is a little thinly drawn. You'll find yourself coming down on her side rather than Marco's in most of their disagreements, so I wouldn't necessarily say she's not a rounded character-- but I would have liked to have seen more of who she is and where she came from.
Change is scary, because sometimes it's easier to just limp along then take a risk. Marco would much rather weather things than face them head on. But change happens whether by choice or not, and it's better to embrace those changes with someone by your side. "Everything is better with you than without," he tells Emily at the end of the first volume, and though this isn't the end of his deep reluctance to deal with the curveballs life has in store, it's an important start.
Marco meets Mr. Mesrin while on a stroll one afternoon. Kind and gentle and wise, he is harboring a dark wartime past; a past with ties to Marco's father, leading Marco to realize the limits to ever truly knowing anyone. This is further compounded when Marco's father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, than later dies. He begins to understand how little he really knew of the "man trapped inside his father." And as he begins to come to terms with his discovery of Mr. Mesrin's past, Marco must decide how to reconcile the old man's past with his present, or if he even can. Even up to the very end, he is still discovering there are things he didn't know about him.
This idea of knowing (or not knowing) others, is a thread throughout ORDINARY VICTORIES. In his father's waning days, Marco returns to his hometown to embark on a new photography project: portraits of the workers at the shipyard his father spent his whole career at. Like his father, the shipyard itself doesn't have much time left, and Marco captures the images of men clinging to their dying livelihood. He reunites with a high school friend, now working those docks, and is appalled to discover his far right politics and his bitterness towards Marco for fleeing to Paris. "Don't start your big city speeches with me!" he yells. "You no longer know what's going on here! You no longer know how we live!"
In some ways, Marco agrees with his old friend's outburst, that he has somehow betrayed his roots in a way. That-- by gaining the larger context of the outside world-- he's forgotten the context of the world he came from.
"It keeps us stuck in place," though, his mom tells him later. "It stops us from moving ahead. Roots are only good for ficuses."
ORDINARY VICTORIES is set against the French political climate of the early 2000s, and I won't pretend that I understand all of its context. But I'm not sure I need to, because it is sentiments, like the quote above, that highlight how similar this backdrop is to my own. This is the story of Marco and his family, but, like real life, he doesn't exist in a bubble. He's worried about the rise of a far right party; of an increased and more militant police force, of the people back home and their anger and fear towards immigrants-- how to rectify this new, tarnished image of old friends with his memories of them.
After his father's death, Marco's mother gifts him a box of old photographs and his father's diaries. He's startled to discover that the diaries never mention him, or his brother, or even his mother. Rather they're one or two sentence entries marking, sometimes poetically, very mundane observations. Marco is in constant pursuit of a big meaning to it all, but here was how his father saw the world: through the little things.
As I said, the art in ORDINARY VICTORIES is beautiful. Manu Larcenet draws his characters as real cartoon characters. Charmingly designed, with big noses, dot eyes, exaggerated expressions-- all of this lends a lightness to the otherwise weighty subject matter. The colors, provided by Patrice Larcenet, are truly striking. If you flip through its pages, the bright and varied hues are probably the first thing you'll notice. They're expressionistic and bold but mostly representational, tied to the realism of the scene and scenery. Except, that is, for when Marco has a panic attack. As Marco's eyes turn into scribbled scratches, all colors drop out and are replaced by a violent, single shade of red.
The drawings get a little sketchier as the story progresses, the colors more muted. Whether this is intentional or not, as Marco matures, the world becomes less defined and clear, not more so. Those poetic photograph segments fall away as Marco grows older. From four interludes in the first volume to only two in the final one, the last sequence being entirely close ups of his daughter's stuffed animals.
Though his drawings are looser and scratchier than you'd find in the ligne claire style, ORDINARY VICTORIES does stick to that tradition's evenly paced panel arrangements. There are slight variation of panel size, but he only breaks the four tier layout a handful of times. The panel pacing doesn't even change for Marco's panic attacks, and I think that's intentional. These episodes are terrifying and horrible for Marco every time, but it's as much a part of his normal life as playing video games with his brother or walking in nature with his cat.
Marco only really begins to understand his father once he is also a father, and only then does he begin to understand himself. And that understanding is that he can't and won’t ever understand everyone. But that doesn't mean you should stop trying. Life doesn't promise clarity; but Marco does find a sense of purpose, at least for a while, through his photographs of the shipyard. Ultimately, his pictures have no impact at large. The dock is still closed. The workers lose their jobs. The shipyard is demolished. But he still found purpose through taking them, from doing what he could because it was what he ought to.
ORDINARY VICTORIES opens with Marco quitting his therapist. But by the end he is working with a new one. He never has an epiphany really, there is no "aha!" moment. Life is work, and you just have to keep working at it, every day. Happiness or contentment or clarity or empathy or whatever you want to call it, it's a never ending process.
ORDINARY VICTORIES’ original French title is LE COMBAT ORDINAIRE, and it probably sums up the story better. Because this book IS about ordinary victories-- but more than that, it's about ordinary losses and, mostly, ordinary struggle. The highs and lows of the ordinary and of trying to make sense of it. It's a sad story but, upon close examination, a hopeful one. There are joys to be found... in family, in strolls in the country side, in art, in doing something worthwhile. It's a comical but serious and poignant book; a universal but deeply personal work, and one I think I'll only identify more with the older I get.