Savina Petkova on Werner Herzog’s ‘Family Romance, LLC’ (2019)
Tokyo holds a special sense of wonder to reverent cinematic nomad Werner Herzog, and it’s readily apparent by the attention his camera pays to passers-by. In a sequence that goes on for minutes exploring people’s gaits and the rhythm of a crowd, Family Romance, LLC opens with an observational stance. The narrative follows Yuichi Ishii (as himself), the founder of the company which lends its name to Herzog’s most recent ethnographic project, as Ishii rents out relatives, friends, and acquaintances to the Japanese people who can afford it. This half-therapy, half-acting job is a paid deal and the film firmly acknowledges monetary transaction, yet it constantly comes back to its existential outcome.
When Mr. Ishii stands in for a young girl’s (Mahiro Tanimoto, as herself) father, their relationship is depicted through a succession of vignettes. They stride through a cherry blossom park and meet at an amusement park — typical places of real father-daughter playtime connection, as Mahiro gradually grows fonder of her long-lost dad. However, the intimate reactions are scripted recreations that the two protagonists have already experienced. This mise-en-abyme only serves to accentuate the impossibility of distinguishing between performative behaviour and documenting so-called real life. Herzog’s camera grows fonder and more intimate with its subjects, the camera lovingly shooting Iishi and Mahiro in inquisitive close-up as they converse. Zoomed in, their relationship feels authentic, if only it wasn’t for our spectatorial knowledge that he is not Mahiro’s father. Such persisting tension between the viewer and the protagonist’s point of view seems uncontaminated precisely by Herzog’s skilled method of observation as if every atom composing this scene is inherently compelling.
In exploring the multitude of services offered by Family Romance, LLC, the film offers fully-fleshed dramatic episodes, with a distinct beginning, middle, and cathartic end. In one case, a woman seeks to relive the joy of having won the lottery, so she hires Mr Ishii to surprise her again. In another, a mother “rents” a husband for her daughter’s wedding because her actual one is at home, epileptic. The stories are simple and the human need straight-forward, yet a deeper longing for connection shines through. By keeping at bay with his subject, also keeping his iconic voice to himself this time around, Herzog never gives us a sterile representation of such situations. Every time the camera lingers on a vignette’s end, it pays close attention to people’s gestures and faces, to explore the wrinkles of happiness and their steady relaxation. It’s a form of therapy, this service, after all.
By the end of the film, the narrative takes an uncanny turn, as Ishii visits an all-robot hotel and inquires about the entrepreneurial process of developing a service totally devoid of human consciousness. In its complexity and pondering, this sequence is High-Herzog, as we feel the director’s compulsion to speak out through the voice of Ishii, debating whether or not robots will have dreams in the future. The mechanistic exchange of cordial greetings and the periodical blinking of the humanoids seem a ticking clock to a trans-humanistic future, as our protagonist contemplates a robotic fish swimming in a tank in a very, very long take. It is through suppressing the question of the human at large that Herzog silently poses questions about the heart of humanity, and what we do with it.
In retrospect, Family Romance LLC is like a treasure chest in which every which sequence is a gem of its own. The mise-en-abyme of performance and real life is a tangible factor in how we perceive the film’s characters, and part of Herzog’s artistic philosophy overall, yet their relationships on-screen is what makes the film truly remarkable. Coated in a ‘fun experiment’ layer, Herzog’s latest film is a profound meditation on the human situation that fits wholly within his corpus yet shows a mind not yet satiated with answers. There is time and space for everything: an afternoon to spend petting a hedgehog, to “rent a death” on occasion, or visit a fortune-teller. Herzog’s existentialism transcends the dichotomies between the meaning of life and death. “It’s very quiet in here”, Ishii whispers to the funeral homeowner that prepares a casket for his role-play funeral. “In your grave, it’s all silence”, he responds.
Family Romance, LLC screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.