I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Werner Herzog’s latest film is a marvelously strange and perplexing meta meditation on human connection and ritual, on fact and fiction and the emotional truths to be found through both, on the very nature of cinema itself. Family Romance, LLC. blurs the line between drama and documentary in a way that is delightfully confounding and a constant challenge to our understanding of storytelling, and of the functions it serves.
Ishii Yuichi runs a service company in Tokyo with the same name as this movie. He hires himself and other staffers and freelancers out as stand-in family members — say, if Dad can’t make his daughter’s wedding for, ahem, some reason — and for other situations in which someone is feeling lonely, inadequate, or otherwise in need of a simulation of human authenticity. We meet some of these sad, poignant people in between the big ongoing job Yuichi has: pretending to be the long-estranged father of 12-year-old Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), now returning to be a part of her life, on regular weekend outings to the park.
Herzog says Romance “was all staged and written, rehearsed, and stylized,” but also that it was primarily improvised by the actors. Who are playing themselves. Acting as his own cinematographer, Herzog (Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Into the Abyss) presents everything in a very straightforward documentary style, without any of his usual philosophical narration, and everything here is, the filmmaker says, based upon the work that Yuichi’s company does. So, is it “real”? What does it mean to even ask that? I found myself wondering whether Mahiro knows that Yuichi is not really her dad but simply an actor hired to be a fake father, but then I got lost in the implications of that. Of course Mahiro the performer knows she’s performing in a story about a girl who hasn’t seen one of her parents in years, but what about Mahiro the character, who obviously gets more and more attached to Yuichi? Does it matter if the emotional needs that the fakery intends to satisfy are actually satisfied? Is human connection genuine even if it’s a delusion… and does that then make it “real”?
But wait: Is Mahiro a mere character? Herzog is such a trickster that I wouldn’t put it past him to pass off an actual, straight-up documentary as a scripted drama, just for shits and giggles.
Family Romance is an existential cinematic rabbit hole. We don’t think twice about getting emotionally caught up in actors playing fictional characters onscreen. We don’t think twice, even, about feeling powerful empathy with real people whose stories documentaries tell. So why is it so disconcerting to not know which we’re experiencing here? Yuichi suffers a similar disconnect, constantly worried that his work is not beneficial, even confessing to a fear that his own family (whom we do not meet) might also be actors playing roles. But then, isn’t that what we all do all the time, modulating our behavior, to at least some degree, based on what others expect of us?
first viewed during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival
Read an eye-opening interview with Ishii Yuichi in The Atlantic, dating from 2017, by Roc Morin, one of Herzog’s colleagues and a producer on the film. But don’t read it until after you’ve seen the film.
In the UK, rent Family Romance, LLC. via Modern Film’s virtual screening platform to help support local arthouses during the coronavirus lockdown.