Family Romance, LLC (2019)

Written and Directed by Werner Herzog

It’s not a lie, if you believe it.

The year is 2020, and our idea of authenticity has entered murky territory. People avidly follow Instagram influencers who don’t exist, and crowds can be hired for protests. People will take advice on how to spend their money from someone who has never set foot in the world, and one of democracy’s protected rights is for sale.  

It was only a matter of time before these placebo people entered the inner sanctum of the domestic domain, and gave customers the ability to buy themselves a family member. Out of this real phenomenon springs Werner Herzog’s latest meta-fiction Family Romance, LLC, a film about Ishii Yuichi, a man who makes a living standing in for those closest to us.

Some of his gigs come out of tragic necessity, like walking a daughter down the aisle because her alcoholic father can’t. Other jobs are for professional trickery, like taking the blame for someone’s fuck-up at work. Somber attitudes and lighthearted guffaws coexist.

But at the core of Family Romance, LLC is Yuichi’s job as ersatz parent for 12-year old Mahiro, where he steps into the hole left by a missing father, and we learn the performance isn’t just for show as he takes on a hybrid role as therapist, counsellor and mediator all in one, sparring with Mahiro on life’s questions, and debriefing her mother after a hangout. The longer it goes on, the deeper the relationship gets, and the blurrier the line of reality becomes for everyone involved.  

It’s a film that comes at you sideways. This is a staged documentary about people who stage reality. Herzog, acting as his own cinematographer, pushes this blurred dichotomy with cinematography not far removed from traditional fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking.

There’s a sweetness to seeing Yuichi make a positive difference in letting his clients have a difficult, therapeutic conversation they’d otherwise not get the chance to have, or satisfying an emotional urge they’d be embarrassed to voice in public, but it quickly turns saccharine once you ponder the underlying causes. You watch it at first with a smile, which turns wistful, which then becomes a frown, which then deflates with a sigh – do we live in a world where our best bet for a support network is a staged production? 

Like the relationships Yuichi makes his purview, what you take from Family Romance, LLC is dependent on what you put in. It could be a film about a quirky phenomenon, a benign workaround for social life’s awkwardnesses. Or a symptom of how our social fabric has frayed in its integral places. 

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