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Cannes 2019: Family Romance LLC, The Climb, The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao

Does Werner Herzog ever sleep? His latest film, "Family Romance, LLC,shown in Cannes's special screenings program, is one of his most unusual.

To begin with, it's a fictional work; these days Herzog has largely devoted his efforts to documentaries. It was shot with nonprofessional actors in Japan. And although Herzog takes a writing credit, he told Variety that his stars had substantial freedom to improvise, learning situations and hitting certain plot points rather than reciting dialogue verbatim. (He also said it was his first trip to Cannes in 25 years, which is kind of astounding.)

"Family Romance, LLC" opens with a man (Yuichi Ishii) spotting a 12-year-old girl he is supposed to meet, Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), and sitting down with her in a park. He says he is the father who abandoned her in a divorce when she was very young, and they try to catch up for lost time. But we soon learn that he is hired actor, of sorts: His company, Family Romance, LLC, rents out surrogate family members when real ones are unavailable. He's playing a father figure for Mahiro at the request of her mother, who is concerned about her, and reporting back to the mother on the girl's well being. (He suggests that the mother allow Mahiro a little more freedom.)

This first family is just the tip of the iceberg. Family Romance LLC rents out a fake father for a wedding when the bride's dad, an unreliable alcoholic, can't be counted on to be there. Another man is hired to get berated by an angry boss, taking the heat for a railroad employee who allowed a train to leave 20 seconds early. (The railroad worker cheerfully thanks the ringer afterward: "You really took the blame for me.")

But par for the course with Herzog, the wry setup quickly reveals troubling dimensions. Family Romance employees are "not allowed to love or be loved," but Ishii's character begins to get close to his work. Mahiro lies to him, and he feels duped—but of course, he is lying to her. Things get truly complicated when her mother begins to view him as a potential replacement father. He even begins to ponder the nature of his own home, wondering how much of his own family's behavior is genuine and how much is acted.

Pieces of this premise may seem familiar from films like "Certified Copy," in which a fake couple begin to resemble a real one, or "Marjorie Prime," in which the dead are replaced with computer replicas. But the Herzog touch is evident both in his globetrotter's fascination with real-life oddities (as other writers have already noted, The New Yorker covered Japan's rent-a-family industry last year) and in—this is a compliment—the imperfection of his execution. Herzog is not interested in filming a polished drama about characters who play roles for a living; he is interested in recording actors as they pretend to pretend. The movie lets awkward dialogue hang in the air and leaves pauses that appear to be the vestiges of improvisation in place. The sensation that the actors are as in the dark as we are only adds to the refractions in Herzog's hall of mirrors.

Questions about the nature of family are also at the heart of Michael Angelo Covino's debut feature,  "The Climb," one of the highlights of this year's Un Certain Regard program. This is a portrait of two friends played by Covino and Kyle Marvin, who co-wrote the script and whose characters share their first names. The movie follows them episodically across several years: Michael wrecks Kyle's impending marriage to one fiancée (Judith Godrèche) and then keeps coming terrifyingly close, at several junctures, to wrecking his next engagement (to Gayle Rankin).

Covino’s strength is not only in the movie's strange comic rhythms—this is the sort of film that may seem unfunny initially but gets deeper, more horrified belly laughs as it progresses—but also in his an odd and original use of screen space. Much of the movie is filmed in long takes, in shots that are partly show-offy and partly purposeful. The camera often tracks through rooms and hallways to show us what characters are saying about one another once someone is just out of earshot, heightening the awkwardness of already-mortifying situations. (It's killing me not to spoil a scene at a church, which goes several steps further than a similar moment in a certain 1967 classic.)

Part of the movie's point about male friendship is that these two friends, who have grown up together and perhaps don't even like each other much as adults, nevertheless know each other with an intimacy that allows them to stick together effortlessly in a way that sometimes eludes romantic couples. Some critics have called the movie a bromance, but it's more of a heartwarming tale of bro-acceptance. Michael and Kyle are family, whether they like or not.

Also about family bonds, also spanning many years, and also in Un Certain Regard is the Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz's "The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão." Two sisters in Rio de Janeiro, Guida (Júlia Stockler) and Eurídice (Carol Duarte), part ways when Guida runs off with a sailor. She returns in 1951, pregnant, and her father, so ashamed of his daughter's indiscretion, tells her that Eurídice is off studying piano in Vienna. He insists to his wife that Eurídice should never know that Guida returned.

And so the two sisters—Eurídice is by married now as well, and a pregnancy forces her to put off her real dreams of studying piano in Vienna—spend years living in the same city without ever knowing it. Guida writes letters to Eurídice that, care of their mother, never reach her. Guida lives in poverty as a single parent, while Eurídice, who is reasonably well off, gets an expanding brood and a diminished version of the piano career she wanted. There are some accidental near-meetings over the years, but neither sister, like Orpheus vis-à-vis Eurydice, knows of the other's proximity.

There is much to admire here, particularly both women's performances and the delicate shading of Hélène Louvart's cinematography. The question of how "The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão" will resolve itself keeps the movie continually absorbing and suspenseful. The film's fatal flaw is that it doesn't seem to know the answer. After nearly two and a half hours of screen time, "Invisible Life" comes in for a soft landing. It's a seriously deflating finale for a movie that aspires to the richness of myth.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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