The mother behind the model’s mask
Dutch filmmaker Tom Fasseart ‘s beautiful and poignant documentary A Family Affair is a forensic study of his grandmother Marianne Hertz, a former model, now 95, and the dark heart of the film.
Inexplicably, Marianne repeatedly abandoned Tom’s father Robert and his siblings, firstly in a children’s home when Robert was three, later by moving to South Africa without them, and a third time, having invited grown-up Robert and his family to live and work there.
Through close-up, often uncomfortable interviews, photographs, historical and domestic footage and diaries, Fasseart pieces together a family’s pain spanning four generations, uncovering trauma and ancestral wounds – and exposing the bottomless narcissism of the unreliable matriarch, and its genesis in her own upbringing.
The opening frame of a turbulent body of water, with Robert’s voice calling softly “hullo Mommy, can you hear me”, acts as a metaphor for the unknowable ocean of secrets and unhealed psychic wounds in this broken family – and the distance between them.
The trauma suffered by Marianne’s three children from their sudden abandonment in an orphanage – and equally abrupt retrieval two years later – is just below the surface. Robert and his autistic brother are frequently reduced to tears; Madeleine remains embittered, indifferent.
Fasseart’s film is a quest to unravel some of the mystery and mythology of his grandmother. Robert, now 70, shares early in the film that he’s the “son of a mother that wears a mask”, expressing his hopes she might unmask herself before she dies, so they can achieve some intimacy, some experience of motherly love.
For her part, Marianne hopes the film might explain and justify her actions, and restore her reputation. She is oblivious to the pain she has caused; vain, demanding and manipulative (grotesquely coquettish, she even flirts with her grandson). But as we learn about her upbringing and father, a self-hating Jew
obsessed with appearance, she becomes somewhat sympathetic; despite her evasiveness and denial, the monstrous egocentricity is given context.
But she has another shock up her sleeve, this time for Tom …
The beauty of the film lies in it is a courageous and candid depiction of an unhappy lineage, its deceptive artlessness, and its gently uplifting conclusion: the long-suffering Robert finds some reconciliation, an acceptance of and forgiveness for his mother’s flaws and limitations.
This masterful film opened the 2015 International Documentary Film Festival, the world’s largest documentary film festival held annually in Amsterdam, and has been a triumph at a score of festivals from Poland to the Philippines. It is set to screen at the Zurich Film Festival and iDocs Beijing in November. –