Film Review: ‘A Family Affair’

'A Family Affair' Review: Tom Fassaert's
Courtesy of Conijn Film

Tom Fassaert's IDFA opener is a startling inquiry into his troubled family history that makes a virtue of missing information.

As much as films like “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Stories We Tell” have taught us to expect the unexpected when it comes to family portraiture on film, viewers may still find themselves taken off-guard by Dutch docmaker Tom Fassaert’s fascinating “A Family Affair.” Alternately elusive and stunningly candid as it unpicks the Fassaert clan’s tangled, troubled history with nonagenarian matriarch Marianne Hertz, this deceptively artless, journal-style film has no need for any carefully sculpted twists; rather, it’s the sheer unpredictable perversity of human nature that takes the breath away at key points in Fassaert’s unsettling, perhaps unsolvable, inquiry. A low-key but imagination-snaring choice of opener for this year’s IDFA fest, “A Family Affair” requires deft marketing from arthouse distribs — teasing but not spoiling its nerviest revelations — if auds are to accept its closed invitation.

Midway through “A Family Affair,” Fassaert’s jumbled familial archive turns up an intriguing newspaper article from the early 1950s about his grandmother, Marianne Hertz — then a moderately famous fashion model in her native Netherlands. “Model and Perfect Mother,” reads the headline, accompanied by glowing portraits of Hertz, chicly dressed and beamingly posed with her three young children. Given what we’ve learned — and what has been alleged — about her by this point in the film, it’s hard not to think of similar accounts of falsely kept appearances in “Mommie Dearest,” Christina Crawford’s incendiary memoir of growing up as Joan Crawford’s beleaguered daughter, and its vivid 1981 film adaptation. Crawford, of course, wasn’t alive to defend herself from accusations of negligence and abuse; in ceding the spotlight to his grandmother, however, Fassaert practically begs her to present her side of the story.

Her stubborn refusal to do so marks at once the film’s sorest dramatic roadblock and its most tantalizing source of tension. Ninety-five years old at the time of filming (and looking a good two decades younger), Hertz may not want to talk, but takes evident delight in being on camera — both the subject and agent of a big story, however potentially unsavory. Though he adheres to unconditional expression of affection for a woman he scarcely knew as a child, Fassaert slyly exploits her eagerness for attention to suggest not just the truths she’s won’t admit, but the delusions too. It’s the kind of intimately dispassionate anatomy of a character that only a family member could make, and one from which she emerges as an unforgettable anti-heroine: immediately charismatic and frighteningly remote, potentially bipolar or a master manipulator of facades.

The story — as Fassaert receives it from his emotionally exhausted father Rob, and as gradually assembled in the film — is both simple and inscrutable. In the 1940s, after a few early years of conventional nuclear family life, Hertz had the 3-year-old Rob and his older brother, Rene, taken, without warning or explanation, into an orphanage. Just as suddenly, she (now minus the boys’ never-to-return father) took them back two years later, resuming motherhood with what Rob describes as a previously unknown air of detachment. From this formative blip, never discussed or justified by Hertz, the family has passively unraveled: Hertz emigrated to South Africa without her children, Rene retreated into an apparent state of adult autism and Rob raised his own family to believe him an orphan. (That the boys’ sister has seemingly opted out of Fassaert’s project adds further variables to the equation.)

Only in Fassaert’s youth did his grandmother reconnect with her children, though the post-reunion era is no less riddled with false starts and information blackouts. Now in his 30s, the filmmaker accepts an unsolicited invitation to Hertz’s Western Cape home — high-walled and electric-wired, as is customary in South African suburbia, though the unintentional metaphor is unlikely to be lost on viewers — and heads there with his camera, determined to set the family record straight. Yet the new, equally incomplete narrative he’s faced with could hardly be more willfully kinked: Hertz, rather a deft storyteller herself, proves evasive on key grievances, while fostering entirely new ones with astounding confessions out of left field. Whether she’s openly unveiling psychological disorders that could reframe this entire tortured family history, or fabricating them to put her stunned grandson further off-track, is yet another mystery the film must negotiate with no firm evidence to hand.

As in Sarah Polley’s heart-squeezing reflection “Stories We Tell,” the bittersweet lesson learned by Fassaert in the course of his well-meaning questioning is that private personal history cannot be researched in the same way as the more public third-person narratives that capture the imaginations of documentary filmmakers. Sometimes family lore, as flawed and frustrating as it might be, emerges as a kind of indirect truth in itself; the facts of the matter die, perhaps forgotten or never accepted, with those who perpetrate them. (“I want to know what went wrong,” Fassaert tells his grandmother. “That’s your problem,” she replies briskly.) Beautifully edited by Claudio Hughes to convey the piecemeal structure of a family scrapbook — loosely formed and reconsidered over the years, with breathing space permitted for future editorialization — “A Family Affair” is both an anguished plea for information and a moving acceptance of the things it cannot change.

Film Review: 'A Family Affair'

Reviewed at Grand Theatre, Copenhagen, Nov. 8, 2015. (In Intl. Documentary Festival Amsterdam — opener.) Running time: 110 MIN. 

Production

(Documentary — Netherlands-Denmark) A Conijn Film production in co-production with Danish Documentary. (International sales: Roco Films, Sausalito.) Produced by Wout Conijn. Co-producers, Sigrid Dykjaer, Hanny Phylpo.

Crew

Directed by Tom Fassaert. Camera (color, HD), Fassaert; editor, Claudio Hughes.

With

Marianne Hertz, Tom Fassaert, Rob Fassaert, Rene Fassaert. (English, Dutch dialogue)

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  1. Lucilla Nash says:

    I hope it was cathartic for the children. She was quite entrenched in her belief of how life was and unwavering in the possibility of an altered perspective. Thank you for being transparent.

  2. beth says:

    I watched this movie in complete disbelief. It could have been the story of my husbands life [who by the way is from South Africa]. This is his mother to a tee!! Loves NO ONE but herself and she is NEVER wrong. Cannot stand her!

  3. CYNTHIA NIELSEN says:

    This woman is a perfect example of the devastating effects mental illness can have on a family when its symptoms are unknown and not understood. Marianne is clearly is a classic Narcissist and may suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder as well. Her ruination of one child is a common projection of her own negative feelings placed on a singled out child. She adores the one who pays attention to her, loving him in an unnatural way. She is even jealous of his girlfriend, manipulative and mean spirited. Her way or the highway. She said her father was all about image, and that may be true as these things are inherited, but she too is all about image. They (the ill) never apologize as they are never wrong. The world picks on them and they are helpless victims in their minds who only end of hurting those who hunger for unconditional love. Very sad but very insightful. I feel for the poor children who never fully understood she was a very sick woman. Tom has the patience of a saint. No matter what those kids did or became they would never be good enough and would never understand why unless familiar with the above stated disorders.

  4. Avril Interiano says:

    It took me 2 days to watch this documentary i literely went through so many emotions. I want to say so much but it would only make sense to me. Being a mother is hard, life is hard. I believe we each have our own journey it is a shame many of us get hurt or hurt someone along the way. Thank you for putting this out there

  5. Cornishgirl says:

    I think her experiences in Nazi Germany deeply affected her.

  6. arri says:

    I was so glued that I had to watch it twice. There are so many questions left unanswered. One of the first is, was she molested by her father? Is Rene a product of incest? Marianne said that he was not supposed to be. She said she was rejected by her father in many ways. Could that have been a clue?Being in love with her grandson threw me off. I wish she could’ve come undone to put things into place and give her family some sort of peace. I couldn’t imagine doing this to my family. She died with her mask and nothing was ever solved. Just totally unrepentant without justifying anything.

    • beth says:

      The only thing about Nazi Germany that distressed her was having to lose everything.

    • Maria Hidalgo Dolan. Esq. says:

      I had the same suspicion; that Marianne’s father molested her and that Rene was a product of that relationship. Clues were when she said her father hated Jews even though he was a Jew, when she said her mother let herself go and that Rene should not have been and the fact that she desired her grandson (a clear boundary disorder). Her disconnect is a survival skill. I was amazed that she cried. Very narcissistic. Haunting story. Sorrowful family bloodline wound. I was completely intrigued that Rene had the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging in his home. He is truly a triumphant figure in this story. Lots of masses should be said for the healing of this family bloodline. Praying for all of them.

  7. Nostra says:

    Wonderfully made documentary, which manages to keep you glued to the screen, wanting to know what more you will hear. Very well made.

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