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A Family Affair

[…] Even if this film tells the story of one specific family and an exceptional woman through the intelligent editing of an extraordinary image and video archive, in this family affair we can easily recognize a universal character concerning “the” family and its “affairs”.

[…] In all these films, one can find the struggle between the older individual world-view that is concentrated in the forging of one’s own path, and a more recent “naturalist” view that considers the family and the bond of blood as fundamental.

There are love affairs and family affairs. These latter seem to be particularly popular among documentary filmmakers today, who often try to show how far they are, in fact, love affairs. In the case of Tom Fassaert, it all starts with a dramatic experience of his father (aged three) and his uncle being “abandoned” by their mother in a children’s asylum many years ago: a past that is evidently still very present. The film then focuses on the exceptional figure (or character…) of Tom’s grandmother Marianne, a 95-year-old woman who is still extremely attentive in looks and in health. The rest of the documentary, which soon reveals its therapeutic intentions, is devoted to this eccentric person, to her world of appearances and her very difficult relationships with the sons, and with the concept of family in general.

Despite the fact that the grandmother always remains at the centre of attention, and the music throughout remains a bit too monotonous, A Family Affair is not a static documentary at all. Tom Fassaert is able to tell a constantly evolving story that delivers several astonishing coup de scènes. We can identify at least four moments in the film that correspond to four aspects of Marianne’s puzzling personality: the devil Marianne, who is selfish and manipulative, responsible for the lifelong suffering of her sons and the rest of the family; the crazy Marianne, who falls in love with the grandson Tom while he is filming her and wants to have a “real” love affair with him (!), pushing him to forget their family relationship; the human Marianne, who reveals to Tom, for the first time, her difficult childhood spent as a Jew in Nazi Germany, as a victim of her father’s disregard, and then in Holland as a penny-less mother of two children coping with a model career. Then, there is the pivotal moment when she cries and seems to finally leave her mask behind, having spent her entire life forbidding herself to love and hiding her insecurity behind an impeccable look. But this is not the last moment, as she finally rejects the picture of the family she could meet again in Holland and, with the jealousy of a true lover, does not accept the idea that Tom has a partner. The devil and crazy Mariannes come back and stay, together with the human one, in an intriguing complexity that accompanies her until death.

Even if this film tells the story of one specific family and an exceptional woman through the intelligent editing of an extraordinary image and video archive, in this family affair we can easily recognize a universal character concerning the family and its affairs. In A Family Affair, there are two more universalities I want to stress here. The first one concerns our times, insofar as this film can be seen as another example of the common trend in documentary films to reflect on family through the specific topic of the parent-child relationship. We need not go beyond the Swiss borders to find other recent examples of this trend: Beyond This Place by Kaleo La Belle (2009), Argerich by Stéphanie Argerich (2012), Karma Shadub by Ramon Giger (2013), and Das Leben drehen by Eva Vitija (2015). When comparing A Family Affair to these other filmic works, one becomes conscious of a second, very interesting universality present in the film: not only does it concern the parent-child relationship, or the difficult balance between egoism and love in this relationship, but it also concerns the “historical” question of a generational confrontation. In all these films, one can find the struggle between the older individual world-view that is concentrated in the forging of one’s own path, and a more recent “naturalist” view that considers the family and the bond of blood as fundamental. This is the struggle between a life thought of as a story (a fairy tale, in Marianne’s version) and one considered as a natural truth; Tom’s uncle, René, explicitly speaks of the “natural” relationship between mother and son… What I learn from this struggle is that the ostensible arrogance of the older vision can distract us from the deeper arrogance hidden in the more recent vision, centred on nature, good feelings, and truth. At least the older vision rarely has the moralistic pretentions that dominate the new “familist” approach.

In this respect, A Family Affair provides a very mature perspective, for it gives us the ability to see the two visions I mentioned at almost the same distance. Tom Fassaert is not a moralist and he doesn’t judge his grandmother, as his father does. Tom Fassaert is the representative of a younger generation that can finally see both visions with a more distant, neutral gaze. He is the observer and the expression of a historical moment, now, when we need this distance the most, because the “naturalist” and “sentimentalist” attitude is (hopefully!) going to implode under the pressure of its glory.

Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: October 02, 2016

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