★★★☆☆

German auteur Werner Herzog’s latest has been described by some critics as his strangest film in years. His first fiction(ish) film since 2016’s Salt and Fire, it’s not hard to see why. Based on the phenomenon in Japan of hired family members, Family Romance, LLC is billed as a ‘constructed reality’ that follows real-life rent-a-relative Yuchii Ishii as he navigates the strange requirements of his post.

Shot on what appears to be a digital video camera from 2006, Family Romance’s awkward framing, lumpen reverse shots and grey, digital compression marry the utilitarian direction of daytime TV with the inelegance of a student art project. Yet, combined with Yuchii’s off-kilter line delivery, Herzog’s weird aesthetic choices perfectly capture the profound uncanniness of their subject.

That the film never quite settles on a single style is a major factor in its strangeness. Opening as Ishii waits on the street to be seemingly reunited with his daughter, the handheld camera follows him and Mahiro (Tanimoto Mahiro) in a single shot in the style of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. But as the nature of Ishii’s profession is revealed – that he has been hired to impersonate Mahiro’s estranged father – shot sequences that would be impossible to set up in real-time knowingly betray their scenarios’ artifice.

Just as he establishes an emotive narrative arc that forces Ishii to confront the emotional toll of his job, Herzog pivots again to documentary, as we follow the impersonator on his other assignments. Highlights include his showing up at a woman’s house with a giant cheque for ‘winning’ the lottery; taking a young girl, being bullied at school, to a hedgehog sanctuary; and in the film’s funniest sequence, being berated by a rail manager for releasing a train from the station twenty seconds early, while the real guard stands and watches Ishii take his boss’s expletive-laden verbal beating for him. Never one to miss the opportunity for a nifty visual simile, Herzog captures Ishii consulting the owner of an intensely creepy robot hotel before he silently contemplates the motion of a tank of automaton fish.

In more closely replicating the style of the documentary, these sequences resist the dictates of conventional fictional narrative, thus problematising the central plot that has Ishii troubled by his increasing emotional attachment to Mahiro. Herzog doesn’t quite hit the mark here: Family Romance’s denouement is certainly moving but its depiction of Ishii’s emotional conflict is undercooked and perhaps even a little trite. Nevertheless, on a formal level, it’s a fascinating study of the artifice of the genre, a deconstruction of the comforting contract between artist and viewer that guides us towards a particular kind of emotional or intellectual engagement.

The 2020 digital edition of CPH:DOX runs from 18-29 March.

Christopher Machell @Dr_Machell

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