FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC: A Wonderfully Weird Little Ditty from Werner Herzog

If Werner Herzog were a student in a film masters program in 2020, his thesis film would probably look a lot like Family Romance, LLC. That Werner Herzog is actually one of the most legendary filmmakers currently living, with some 70 films under his belt, and he still is producing lo-fi oddities like Family Romance, LLC as though he were a freewheeling student just learning how to experiment with the form…. well, that is just further proof of his endless well of creativity.

A fictional take on an all-too-real company, Family Romance, LLC follows the titular company’s founder, a Japanese entrepreneur named Yuichi Ishii, as he rents out human beings – including himself – to fill important roles in people’s lives. Shot by Herzog in a style so informal that it verges on the nonchalant, it’s a strange little film that mixes documentary and fiction to tell a surprisingly moving story about our desire for human connection, and the lies we’re willing to tell ourselves in order to obtain it.

Fantasy Meets Reality

When we first meet Yuichi Ishii, he is meeting up with a 12-year-old girl named Mahiro to go for a walk among the cherry blossoms. Ishii says he is the girl’s long-lost father, who has been out of her life since her parents divorced when she was too small to even remember him. However, Ishii has in fact been hired by Mahiro’s mother to masquerade as her missing father, taking her out for all of the father-daughter outings she’s been missing as part of her girlhood. It’s all in a day’s work for the company Ishii runs, Family Romance.

FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC: A Wonderfully Weird Little Ditty from Werner Herzog
source: MUBI

Later, we see Ishii and another employee negotiate a contract with a mother who would like to hire a stand-in for her husband to attend her daughter’s wedding; the husband is a drunkard and an embarrassment, so they’d rather have a complete stranger in his place. Another woman has been buying lottery tickets in the hope of recreating the blissful feeling she had on the day she won 20 million yen; instead, she employs Ishii and company to surprise her one day and recreate that feeling for her.

It might all sound incredibly weird, but in watching Ishii provide his services, one is struck with a feeling of poignancy. Ishii is making these people happy in his own strange way, and that in itself deserves to be applauded, especially in a world where so many people seem set on hurting others instead. However, things begin to get out of hand when Mahiro decides that she wants to start spending whole weekends with her dad. With her lonely mother all too willing to embrace Ishii as part of the family, it’s an awkward situation that can only end in heartbreak.

FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC: A Wonderfully Weird Little Ditty from Werner Herzog
source: MUBI

Embracing the Untruth

Ishii is a fascinating figure to follow, with a kindly face and warm professional manner that makes it easy to see why he’d be so good at standing in for missing fathers and husbands. You’re instantly at ease watching him talk to his customers, even if the idea of the services he provides might make you uneasy at first. Ishii takes his duties very seriously; at one point, he even visits a robot hotel to speak to research whether or not it would be feasible to incorporate robots into Family Romance. As the robot eerily blinks and shifts behind the counter in the background, one understands why Family Romance appears to be so successful – there’s really no substitute for human interaction when it comes to loneliness.

As Ishii continues to spend time with Mahiro, their relationship grows more comfortable to the point of being downright adorable. Mahiro introduces Ishii to her little friend Airi, a mixed-race girl who is bullied by other children who say she looks burned because of her dark skin; in one impossibly cute scene, Ishii takes both girls to a hedgehog cafe, where they can tickle the soft bellies of those sweet little creatures.

FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC: A Wonderfully Weird Little Ditty from Werner Herzog
source: MUBI

The joy Mahiro feels in situations like this is utterly real despite the lie at its center, yet the presence of the lie is in itself dangerous, for if Mahiro learns the truth, what will she think? Will she even care, perhaps valuing her time with Ishii more than the blood relationship they supposedly have? Herzog and Ishii together force us to contemplate these uncomfortable questions without providing any easy answers.

With its focus on a real man and his real company, as well as Herzog’s intimate (and incredibly low maintenance) camerawork, Family Romance, LLC looks and feels a lot like a documentary. But by incorporating fictional storytelling techniques -including recreating a wild dream sequence in which Ishii imagines the samurai roleplayers in the park committing real seppuku without swords – Herzog crosses narrative boundaries to create something entirely unique. What Herzog does with his film is similar to what Ishii does with his company: both men mix fantasy and reality for our pleasure. Perhaps one can argue that this is irresponsible, but one cannot argue with how it makes us feel.

Conclusion

The kind of film that could only come from the mind of Werner Herzog, Family Romance, LLC is absolutely fascinating.

What do you think? Are you familiar with the films of Werner Herzog? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Family Romance, LLC is available for streaming via MUBI on July 4, 2020, with a virtual preview on July 3rd. 


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