REVIEW: “Unlike Anything He’s Made Before” – Family Romance, LLC

★ ★ ★

“Not necessarily a misstep, and definitely not to be missed.”

Werner Herzog is, in 2019, a figure most of us are familiar with. Be it as a creepy real estate agent in Parks and Rec, the director of globe-trotting documentaries – from Into the Inferno (2016)to Encounters at the End of the World (2007) – or the auteur behind some of the German New Wave’s most austere films (see Stroszek (1977)), most have us have encountered Herzog in one form or another. His newest film, Family Romance, LLC, is unlike anything he’s made before, in both good and bad ways.

The film has a juicy central topic at its core: a company who hire out fake relatives and friends to those in need. Shot using non-professional actors, the plot centres around a family using the company’s services and hiring a man to impersonate a twelve-year-old girl’s missing father. Set in Tokyo, the film opens with a gorgeous treetop park scene. The blossoms on the tree, with their vibrant colours, are reminiscent of the opening crane shot of All That Heaven Allows (1955). However, soon we are brought down to earth and introduced to our two central characters. These character-led scenes are handheld, almost Dogme-like in their freedom of movement with the camera. What begins to unfold is a story about the artificial and its place in the 21st Century, a film seemingly catered to readers of Baudrillard. If the girl genuinely believes that this man is her father, then is it any different than him having returned? This is the key question Herzog poses to us.

The only problem is, there’s something just off with the film. As it plods along its admittedly short run time, there are numerous scenes that feel like they’ve jumped straight out of Lo and Behold (2016), Herzog’s Netflix documentary about technology. Our protagonist stands in as a surrogate for Herzog in these scenes, often simply asking a series of questions to the owner of whichever oddly modern establishment we’re visiting, be it a hotel staffed by robots or a fake funeral service. This allows Herzog to add layers to what the film seems to be getting at: the fact that we are living in a world where we are constantly surrounded by the artificial, so much so that it’s almost impossible to discern. Even seemingly random interactions in this film turn out to be pre-planned events, but these offshoots, these scenes that seem to simply add to the film’s greater meaning but not necessarily its story, are incredibly jarring. They feel almost part of a different film, a companion documentary maybe.

It’s often the case that Herzog puts message before narrative, however this is often something we see more in his documentary work than his fiction. Films such as Grizzly Man (2005)and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) use their plot almost as a vessel to explore what Herzog really wants to uncover. This is also the case in Family Romance, but given that we’re supposed to be following a narrative it feels distracting, like a digression the viewer didn’t ask for, but one that Herzog decided we’re interested in.

Family Romance, LLC is a really hard to pin down film. It is not necessarily a misstep, and it’s definitely not to be missed, but be warned – it isn’t like anything he’s done before.

Dir: Werner Herzog

Prod: Roc Morin

Cast: Yuichi Ishii, Mahiro Tanimoto

Release Date: Unconfirmed