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.