Sunday, July 5, 2020


Of course Family Romance, LLC is a Werner Herzog movie. It’s plain to see, even without his actual presence on screen or via voice over. This short Japan-set feature is an eerily calm vision somewhere between fact and fiction, interested in pinpointing woozy philosophizing that typifies the Herzog style. There’s a scene in which a man who makes his living renting actors to play the role of family or friend for important events — the film is built around a single mother hiring him to play her daughter’s estranged father — interviews the proprietor of a hotel whose front desk clerks are humanoid robots. As the rubbery mannequin slowly blinks in the background of the shot, one man looks at the other and deadpans “When will they dream?” The film plays like a doodle, a quick sketch, on the part of Herzog. It came together quickly, with some real people playing versions of themselves in improvised scenes with others playing roles. He was clearly intrigued by the ideas in this economic transaction, and about the ways in which we are all playing a part in our lives, putting on a false front in certain situations, code switching in others. Yet his camerawork—brightly lit, simply staged consumer digital— here finds less poetry than usual, and approaches a slapdash simplicity that’s strangely amateurish and rough realism. Stilted and static, with reality drifting through fictions on screen and off, the movie proceeds to unfold in scenes by turn fascinating and vacant. And yet, there’s that potent, eccentric Herzog mindfulness and madness simmering underneath. When the film ends, with a striking shot of a child mostly obscured through an opaque glass door, while our main character hesitates entering, there’s a stirring sense of wonderful deep confusion that draws the film's ideas together. I was reminded of Herzog inventing freed POW Dieter’s habit of opening and closing doors, just to prove again to himself that he’s free — one of the more evocative details in another, and better, of his documentary experiments, 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly. This new film's central figure makes a living selling artificial familial connections, and finds himself confessing in voice over that, in his darkest, quietest moments, he wonders if his own real family might be paid actors, instead. In typical Herzog fashion, it’s a moment of destabilizing whimsy, at once simple dorm-room pontificating, and a cavernous abyss of intellectual inquiry. What makes him a great director is his willingness to get there, in even his most threadbare efforts.

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