Delving into your own family drama may ensure easy access, but it’s a risky endeavor for a documentarian who doesn’t know what he or she may uncover. Filmmaker Sarah Polley captured that tension to cathartic effect in her wonderful family history Stories We Tell. The chief distinction of A Family Affair, a documentary directed by the Dutch filmmaker Tom Fassaert, is that it never reaches such a catharsis. Instead, the film offers an ambivalent portrait of Fassaert’s larger-than-life estranged grandmother, who lives a seemingly glamorous but solitary existence in South Africa.
Fassaert’s film was created opportunistically, as he shot much of the footage after Marianne invited him to visit in South Africa — a sure potshot at Fassaert’s father, Rob, who had recently chosen to cut ties with her in the midst of ghostwriting her memoir. Through Tom’s lens, Marianne, a former model, is both the quintessential charmer and an inexhaustible manipulator. Her vivaciousness is undeniable; we see her, at 95, going on safaris and cruises and doing vigorous leg lifts. But life in her orbit becomes more uncomfortable the closer Fassaert gets: She’s evasive about the years she left her sons in a children’s home, and seems not to understand the impact it’s had on them, instead insisting on her own persecution at the hands of her children. Fassaert follows her journey to “say goodbye” to her family in the Netherlands, and it becomes increasingly clear that Marianne hopes to influence the film’s narrative, much as she would have the aborted memoir.
But the story Fassaert’s film actually tells doesn’t provide much closure. The most painful scene reunites Marianne with her adult son René, a pale, fragile-looking man who lives in an apartment so cluttered with books and papers that there’s no clear path to walk. He struggles to converse with his mother, and while saying their goodbyes, Marianne remarks cruelly: “To think you’re my son. Strange.” The vain woman demands constant affirmation to the point that she sometimes seems to forget her grandson is filming her, and her comments take on a predaceous, sexual quality when they’re alone.
It’s a potent psychodrama, pitting Marianne’s reality against the one Fassaert is documenting. And who’s to say which one is real? In keeping with Marianne’s patchy narrative of motherhood, Fassaert’s film is chronologically fluid, incongruously pairing stories of unhappy childhoods with lighthearted home movies. But Marianne remains at a remove. During one interview, she scoffs stagily at her grandson’s attempts to dig deeper: “Truth? There’s no such thing as the truth. Forget it.”
For someone so close to this turmoil, Fassaert displays remarkable impartiality; either he’s the world’s most professional family anthropologist, or he’s got a wicked poker face. His straightforward responses and questions from behind this handheld camera steady the film, giving it a rational, observational air. Yet he allows Marianne to put so much of herself on display — it may be that he’s playing his own game, and has won.
A Family Affair
Directed by Tom Fassaert
Opens September 16, Cinema Village