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Reviews Family Romance,
LLC(2020) Centered on the Unique, Experimental Nature of the
Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com July 03, 2020
A film about the everyday artifice that so many people
use to get through life.
“Perhaps we are as guilty of artificialness as the
characters of the film.” -- SU Globalists “Family Romance LLC” may be a unique piece of filmmaking when compared to
the landscape in 2020, but Herzog has thrived by pushing the envelope in terms of
what a film should be for a long time now.
After its premiere at Cannes in 2019,
the press around Werner Herzog’s
“Family Romance LLC” centered on the
unique, experimental nature of the film, but it’s really very much in keeping with themes that the
master filmmaker has explored for decades.
A director who has often analyzed the
presence of artifice in society and has blurred the lines between documentary and fiction filmmaking has
delivered a film that leans into both of those aspects of his career.
A hybrid experience that features a protagonist doing what he does in reality but
with an improvised, fictional spin, “Family Romance
LLC” may be a unique piece of filmmaking when compared to the landscape in 2020,
but Herzog has thrived by pushing
the envelope in terms of what a film should be for a long time now.
The theatrical release
of “Family Romance LLC” was canceled
after the pandemic, and it’s premiering on Mubi this weekend. Fans of Herzog—and that really should be all of you—should seek it out.
A man in a perfect suit waits in Yoyogi Park for someone as Herzog’s camera captures a girl who has walked past him multiple
times, scoping him out and waiting to approach. Immediately, Herzog is thinking more like a documentarian. It’s clear most
people in the park are not extras, but just people going about their lives.
regularly wanders away to the cherry blossoms or people playing in the park. But it keeps returning to
the man, who is named Yuichi Ishii and the 12-year-old girl he is supposed to meet
named Mahiro. Yuichi tells Mahiro that he is her missing father, someone she hasn’t
seen in years and barely remembers. It is an awkward, touching reunion. None of it is real.
It turns out that Ishii owns a company called Family
Romance LLC, from which people can “hire” family members. Are you in a situation
where the father of the bride is too alcoholic to attend his daughter’s wedding? Call Family Romance.
The business is real, and Yuichi Ishii is its actual owner. At the request of
Mahiro’s mother, he’s pretending to be her father to offer emotional support and report back on how
she’s doing to mom.
Herzog is clearly fascinated by the entire concept of surrogate family
members, and his direction here uses it in an unexpected, loose way. Reportedly, much of the dialogue
was improvised, and the filmmaking feels similarly organic and on-the-fly. Scenes go on too long,
awkward moments are allowed to hang in the air, conversations are filmed from one angle with no
coverage—"Family Romance LLC" often
looks and feels like it’s capturing reality more than filmed storytelling, and the metatextual approach
enhances the entire experience. Ishii is a man who
pretends to be other people, who is pretending to be himself in Herzog’s film. It’s a fascinating Möbius
strip of reality and fiction.
Even as Yuichi starts to express
existential concern about his chosen profession—“Every day, I
feel uneasy”—Herzog refuses to succumb to traditional narrative melodrama. He not only knows that audiences will be
aware of the many odd conceits of his film but uses those to his advantage.
When a phone
rings during a meeting with an oracle, it clearly wasn’t intended, but Herzog didn’t retake the scene. He
lets life intrude, breaking the illusion of filmmaking in the same way that the people who hire
Ishii’s company often know it’s not “real,” but they go along with it anyway.It becomes a film about the everyday artifice that so many people use
to get through life.Ishii even questions if
maybe someone hired his parents. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves from both sides of a relationship
and how they can become truth. Ishii starts to care about Mahiro, realizing the
façade impacts him as much as his clients.
Herzog also captures the beauty of Tokyo in
wide shots over the city and as his camera roams Yoyogi Park. In those sequences,
he’s often drawn to people playing pretend, including a group of wannabe samurai—modern kids playing
with pretend swords, even feigning death and seppuku.
Herzog has often filmed documentaries in a manner that felt like
fiction and made fictional films that hinge on the true stories of the cast or production. What defines a
documentary has been a hot topic at festivals for the last few years with the hybrid work of people like
Robert Greene and the Ross brothers. It’s nice to see one of
history’s best filmmakers still experimenting with that question.