A Family Affair


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Family Affair
"Messily shot and assembled like the story it tells, this is a film which forces the viewer to ask questions about what is accident and what is artistry."

What makes a well-to-do young housewife suddenly dump her children in an orphanage only to return two years later and reclaim them, yet never again show them the love they remember? That's just one of the mysteries in the troubled family at the centre of this film, but it's the one that first hooks 30-year-old filmmaker Tom Fassaert, and that persuades him to accept an unexpected invitation from the woman in question - his grandmother - who has decided, after burning through other biographers, that he should capture the story of her life.

Briefly, in the 1950s, Marianne Hertz was a star - a glamorous model who adored the way that people looked at her when she was on the catwalk. She danced in and out of people's lives, including that of Tom's father, inviting the family she had largely ignored to live with her in South Africa in the Eighties, only to reject them again and abandon them to their fate. Tom's uncle Rene suffers from mental illness and waxes longingly on how the way his life might have been if only she had been like everybody else's mother. Of course, other people's mothers have their own complex lives, but this rather fixed and narrow understanding of how a family ought to be is part of what makes the film intriguing.

Copy picture

A Family Affair might be framed as a battle between the charismatic Marianne, now 95, and the professionally manipulative but still naif Tom, each determined to take control of an ever-shifting narrative. Over the course of the film we see Tom gradually lose the hope his father warned him about, along with the certainty that there is some great truth to be discovered. Revelations abound but, aside from the difficulty of knowing which accounts can be relied upon, they never seem to point to anything consistent. Marianne's manipulative nature becomes more obvious - perhaps she's onto something early on when she insists that, of all her relatives, Tom is the one she sees as being most like her - but it's never quite clear if this is a product of will alone or mental illness. Her games don't always seem to advantage her and sometimes she comes across as compulsively destructive.

Messily shot and assembled like the story it tells, this is a film which forces the viewer to ask questions about what is accident and what is artistry. Only Tom's father tells a conventional story and he has no idea what it's about - he has found peace of a sort by ceasing to ask questions. Tom seems to feel that such questions, and the intimacy they might lead to (at least in fantasy), are essential to the nature of family, so we see another clash, between societal ideals and lived reality, which takes its toll on the mental health of those involved.

Are all families like this, underneath the surface? There are implied questions about our society's preference for keeping it all behind closed doors, but it's not clear that Tom's exposure of his family's troubles really helps anyone. Despite all those attempts at control, A Family Affair is like a piece of found art, a thing not so much deconstructed as unravelling.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize awarded at the Screening at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival International Film Awards on Tuesday, and winner of Best Feature Documentary. Screening with Q&A Sat 15 Oct, CCA Glasgow; Tue 18 Oct, Filmhouse Edinburgh. Masterclass with Director Tom Fassaert - Tue 18 Oct Edinburgh College of Art.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2016
Share this with others on...
A Family Affair packshot
When Tom Fassaert’s 95-year-old grandmother invites him to visit her in South Africa, all he knows about her are his father’s stories about the 1950s femme fatale who put her two sons in a children’s home. An unexpected confession makes things more complicated than he could have ever imagined.

Director: Tom Fassaert

Year: 2015

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: Netherlands, Denmark



Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Closer We Get