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Review: Dutch filmmaker finds the truth to be elusive in documentary ‘A Family Affair’

Dutch filmmaker Tom Fassaert set out to profile his glamorous, vainglorious grandmother, Marianne Hertz, hoping to piece together his family’s fractured past. The result is the intimate, sometimes painful documentary “A Family Affair,” which demonstrates what a Sisyphean task seeking the truth can be.

Early on, Tom was warned by his father, Robert, a psychologist, that the 95-year-old Marianne could be a masterful manipulator. But the younger Fassaert persists, unabashedly prodding his grandmother with questions and raising emotions the rest of the clan, especially Marianne, would prefer to ignore. 

Visiting his grandmother at her home in South Africa, to which she immigrated decades earlier, Tom documents her preparation for a cruise back to the Netherlands to see her two estranged sons, Robert and René. Initially, Marianne comes off as something of a monster, a Norma Desmond-like figure who once deposited her young sons in a children’s home as she pursued a modeling career, popping in and out of their lives, blithely ignoring the trauma she was inflicting.

Tom gradually chips away at the preening facade to seemingly unmask a complex woman whose self-image was largely shaped by her appearance-obsessed father. However, the deeper he digs, the more elusive his subject becomes. Marianne’s home is full of mirrors she readily admits she cannot live without, but they prove to be more of the fun-house variety as Tom learns that even hard-won revelations do not always yield the closure one is looking for. 

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‘A Family Affair’

In Dutch with English subtitles

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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