Money can buy everything – it’s one of those statements that, bordering on exaggeration, approximates truth.
But even the most hardened cynics will tell you that it’s not wholly true. They know that some things will remain untouched by wealth. That is the beauty and futility of money – that no matter how much you accumulate, it still feels inadequate.
But what if that “everything” becomes literal? What if money can give you all: love, compassion, solace, even…family? Werner Herzog’s latest drama, Family Romance, LLC, interrogates that possibility, a world where capitalism is a step away from its ultimate victory.
But Herzog hasn’t conceived a dystopian scenario; he’s just responding to the weirdness of life. In Japan, relationships – or the lack of them – have been an industry for long.
One of the first alarming signs appeared more than a decade ago in the form of anonymous group suicides, which redefined shared misery in a peculiar, morbid way. Of late, old Japanese women have begun committing petty thefts in order to get arrested. Lonely and broke, they hope that prison would at least guarantee companionship and medical care.
Most societies battle depression and desperation in closed confines, but in Japan, discontent has become a public performance and a private enterprise. It has become a country where you can rent nearly everything: pets, cuddles, friends, foreigners, dates, even… family.
This pandemic of loneliness then, quite unsurprisingly, has piqued the interest of a great filmmaker. Herzog, a director for more than five decades, knows that life can be strange, fascinating, scary.
His documentaries are fine testaments to that, and his feature films too. Family Romance, LLC, though, has a strange relationship with truth: It is both fiction and non-fiction. Take, for instance, the film’s title. Family Romance is the name of an actual company in Japan that rents out actors to different families.
The protagonist, Ishii Yuichi, who plays himself in the movie, is the owner of that company. The film is about a 12-year-old girl longing for her father. In a 2017 Atlantic piece, Yuichi was interviewed by a journalist about his business.
When asked “what was your first success?” Yuichi said, “I played a father for a 12-year-old with a single mother. The girl was bullied because she didn’t have a dad, so the mother rented me. I’ve acted as the girl’s father ever since. I am the only real father that she knows.”
That’s exactly the story of Family Romance, LLC. (That journalist, also Herzog’s student, became the film’s producer and additional photographer.)
This tug persists at the level of form, too. Even though Family Romance, LLC is ‘fictional’, it looks and feels like a documentary. There’s a distinct ‘realness’ to the set-up. The camera, at most times, remains close to the actors. Conversations aren’t filmed via the usual shot-reverse shot method; instead the camera angles are minimal. All of this makes perfect sense in this Hiesenbergian universe where the only thing certain is uncertainty: you are family and an outsider, a father and an actor, an imposter and a sympathiser.
This world raises fascinating questions about life and cinema, carving out a separate genre. Because in any art-form, the concept of artifice is shared; both parties know that they’re performing (or faking). But what happens in a situation when only one of them is aware that it’s fiction? What happens when real keeps colliding with the reel: can fiction outsize life – should it?
These are loaded questions, and in Family Romance, LLC, Herzog is right at their centre.
He keeps it simple at the level of story – too simple in fact. Yuichi and the 12-year-old Mahiro meet at the start of the film; their initial conversations are awkward and stilted but, as time passes, their relationship evolves. They visit amusement parks, laugh together, share stories. Meanwhile, Yuichi keeps doing his day job, giving people fragments of life they long for: someone wants to be a celebrity (so Yuichi’s team photographs her on a busy street giving the passersby an impression that’s she is indeed one), someone wants to relive the experience of winning a lottery (so Yuichi’s team ‘surprises’ her one day), someone else wants a father for her wedding (as her own is an alcoholic).
It’s a strange, sad world, where people are so starved of feelings that even a performance is enough.
Even in Mahiro’s case, not all lies are bad. Yuichi withholds her secrets from her mother, protecting the girl like a real father. But there are some things that even he won’t do, such as twitching his eyes, like Mahiro’s father did. “We only do what we really are,” he tells Mahiro’s mother. Yuichi “didn’t want to fake it”.
Family Romance, LLC is never not interesting. It’s a cerebral feast – a homecoming bash of grey cells. Yet it often leaves the heart cold. The bare docudrama approach strips the film of feelings, making the audience an outsider. Maybe that was the intention: to make an inert film about a world where people are struggling with their emotions.
Again, as an idea, it sounds compelling, but such a movie, almost always in a different room than you, seems bottomless. Contrast Family Romance, LLC to another drama based on a similar subject, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps (2011), which was much more complex – both at the levels of structure and ideas – and yet was a searing piece on malleable identities and twisted relationships.
This is a minor Herzog, and its imperfections arise from the imperfections of life. Like the film’s protagonists – preoccupied with filling gnawing vacuum in their lives, desperate for emotional and physical covers – Herzog, too, struggles to find a form that captures such conundrums. Both attempts are valiant – at least someone is raging against the dying light.