AFI Documentary Review: ‘A Family Affair’

“All happy families are alike,” Tolstoy tells us (and hacky film critics looking for a catchy intro to their reviews like to remind us). “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Literature is of course filled with unhappy families—the Compsons, the Karamazovs, the royal family of Denmark—while a compendium of happy families wouldn’t fill a pamphlet—there’s, umm…the Berenstain Bears, I guess. This is because all happy families are boring, while each unhappy family is interesting in its own way. And few unhappy families are as unhappy and as fascinating as Dutch filmmaker Tom Fassaert’s. Fassaert probes his own family’s multigenerational sorrow in “A Family Affair,” a documentary that has the twisting plotlines, probing psychological insight, and thematic complexity of a great novel.

Like many great novels, “A Family Affair” centers on a difficult, complex, and enigmatic character—in this case, Tom’s 96-year-old grandmother Marianne, a former model of some renown whose preening narcissism masks a deep anguish. Or does it? The brilliance of Fassaert’s film is that we spend almost two hours in Marianne’s presence, and yet she remains an enigma to us, as she does to her children and grandchildren. Even Fassaert, in a post-screening Q&A, admitted that Marianne is still a mystery to him today.

Marianne became pregnant at an inopportune age, and, despite her father’s demands to abort her pregnancy, she gave birth to Rene. Marianne was forced into a loveless marriage, which ended shortly after the birth of her second son, Rob (Tom’s father). Marianne then gave up her sons to a children’s home quite suddenly only to take them back just as suddenly a few years later but treating them with a newfound air of detachment. Years later, she would emigrate to South Africa. Marianne refuses to offer explanations or excuses for this behavior. Tom grew up to become a psychologist (in a clearly desperate bid to understand his own mother), while Rene withdrew into a nearly catatonic depressive funk.

Tom travels to South Africa to document his grandmother, to make a film about her that probes more deeply into this woman he barely knows outside than the negative stories he’s heard from his dad, who at one point describes her as “a born manipulator.” What he finds is something out of “Sunset Boulevard,” with his own grandma as Norma Desmond, a larger-than-life character who is obsessed with her own image and legacy—she hires a British woman to write her biography entitled “A Double Life”—but who is extremely guarded about the dark parts of herself. Tom even comes to resemble Joe Gillis, doing his best to keep his grandmother happy as she draws herself uncomfortably close to him.

Tom discovers some shocking things about his grandmother, but this is ultimately less a movie about earth-shattering revelations than about the attempt to understand oneself by understanding one’s family. In many ways, it resembles Sarah Polley’s excellent “Stories We Tell,” including that film’s fascination with the means by which families reproduce their own narratives. Fassaert’s doc lacks Polley’s film’s astounding twists but more than makes up for it with some stunning moments of incredibly strange behavior. This is an absolutely gripping story, patiently but rivetingly unspooled with pathos, humor, and an awareness of its own manipulations.

Fassaert’s film demonstrates better than any other film I’ve seen at AFI Docs so far this year the boundless potential of documentary filmmaking. Depending on who’s in the director’s chair, a documentary can be the most impersonal form of filmmaking or the most intimate. Fassaert opted for the latter and has produced a work of stunning honesty, a funny, sad, beautiful, disarming, disturbing look at the multi-generational ripples of parent-child relationships.

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