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Film Review: ‘The Last Family’

Exceptional camerawork and an unerring eye for period detail are boldly on display in Jan P. Matuszyński’s disturbing biopic of one of Poland’s best known 20th century painters.

'The Last Family' Review
Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival

Most people outside Poland have never heard of the late-20th-century painter Zdzisław Beksiński, and even within the country few are familiar with director Jan P. Matuszyński. Yet for those paying attention to international arthouse cinema, “The Last Family” should boost name recognition for both. While unable to wholly surmount the usual problem of biopics, which either simplify (not the case here) or allow life’s messiness to remain disjunctured, the film is a remarkable, frequently unsettling exercise in staged voyeurism, recreating the interdependent lives of the three members of the troubled Beksiński family. Visually and musically reproducing the era to a T, and boasting terrific lensing by Kacper Fertacz, “The Last Family” is likely to pick up numerous awards on the festival circuit.

Much of the material for Robert Bolesto’s script comes from Zdzisław’s obsessive, decades-long video- and tape-recording of himself and family (some of it available on YouTube), which Matuszyński restages in conversations and entire scenes, often via master shots. However, the film isn’t simply recreation, but rather an intimate portrait of three intertwined lives. The script pays no attention to political changes of the period from 1977 to 2005, and offers no insight to Zdzisław’s art, nor how the paintings are reflections of his personality. Matuszyński is only interested in what happens inside the walls of the family’s apartment, and that of their son — it would take a miniseries, at the very least, to expand it any further.

The deliciously subversive opening instantly grabs attention, as Zdzisław (Andrzej Seweryn) tells a biographer in detail about a computer program he fantasizes about, involving an over-educated Alicia Silverstone simulation with super-long legs and a penchant for S&M. As audiences begin to process this graphic information, told by a 76-year-old man wearing hearing aids, the film jumps back to 1977 (there’s no other temporal shift), and the moment when Zdzisław and his wife Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna) take their son Tomasz (Dawid Ogrodnik) to his new apartment.

In a state of perpetual agitation, even when happy, Tomek is the focus of his parents’ lives, together with Zdzisław’s unsettling surrealist paintings. Zofia’s role is to hold everything together: she runs the household, cooks, cleans, and looks after her mother and mother-in-law, both of whom live with them. Without Zofia’s solidity, the family couldn’t function. On screen, as in life, she’s rarely the focus of attention — she barely merits a close-up, yet by mimicking her position in the family dynamic, Matuszyński reinforces her centrality.

Tomek’s neuroses and near constant agitated movements make him an eccentric figure, but he’s functional, working as a club and radio DJ as well as translator into Polish of English-language films. He is an unpredictable storm, especially compared with Zdzisław’s outward placidity. Good-natured, kind, and ever-observant of himself and his family, Zdzisław is seen videoing everything in the apartment, whether himself in the mirror or painfully raw family discussions; only when eating does he display a modicum of his son’s voracity. What’s not shown is him with brush in hand; although the works themselves cover the walls, their post-surrealist, at times post-apocalyptic darkness are the only outward manifestation of the well-hidden demons that must have been constantly prodding his psyche.

The film progresses through various stages in the family’s life, punctuated by the recurring visits of Polish expat Piotr Dmochowski (Andrzej Chyra), a collector and unauthorized family chronicler. As in real life, episodes connect solely through chronology and the subjects’ force of personality rather than any artificial narrative linearity, which for some viewers may seem like a weakness. Truth be told, it’s hard to imagine reproducing these lives in any other way, but it means that individual scenes have a potency that doesn’t entirely hang together as a whole. Worth singling out is a squirm-inducing sequence with fixed video camera in which Tomek tells his parents of his inability to find love or perform sexually, and the almost unbearably powerful ending, accompanied by a ravishing Mahler song.

Star Seweryn (numerous Andrzej Wajda films, “Schindler’s List,” etc.) captures Zdzisław’s outward geniality while ineffably conveying something darker brewing inside, something Beksiński himself probably strove to cover except in his art. Ogrodnik has the showier role, moving as if a low-current electric charge was pulsing through his agitated existence; his nervous energy is the flip side of Seweryn’s calm, and the two are grounded by Konieczna’s crucial, emotionally rich equanimity.

Visually, the mixture of fixed master shots with recreated early home videos makes it feel at times like we’re watching the Beksińskis as viewed through a diorama. The apartments themselves lend a sense of intimacy, practically become characters in their own right, thanks to Fertacz’s camerawork as well as Jagna Janicka’s production design, flawless in capturing the period (no doubt Polish audiences will nostalgically nod when seeing the books and red reel-to-reel boxes on Zdzisław’s shelves). Just as powerful at evoking period but also mood is Matuszyński’s unerring feel for music, crucial to the characters’ lives, whether it be Schnittke or Yazoo.

Film Review: ‘The Last Family’

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), August 4, 2016. Running time: <strong>122 MIN.</strong> (Original title: “Ostatnia rodzina”)

  • Production: (Poland) An Aurum Film, HBO Europe, Mazovia Film Fund, Lightcraft, Universal Music Poland production. (International sales: New Europe Film Sales, Warsaw.) Producers: Leszek Bodzak, Aneta Hickinbotham.
  • Crew: Director: Jan P. Matuszyński. Writer: Robert Bolesto. Camera (color, widescreen), Kacper Fertacz. Editor, Przemysław Chruścielewski.
  • With: Andrzej Seweryn, Dawid Ogrodnik, Aleksandra Konieczna, Andrzej Chyra.
  • Music By: