Film

In Poland’s “The Last Family,” an Artist’s Clan Unravels Over Decades

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Through the restricted prism of his loved ones and the heated, hermetic existence they shared, Jan P. Matuszynski’s based-on-real-events drama The Last Family surveys nearly thirty years in the life of the Polish painter Zdzisław Beksinski (1929–2005). But though Beksinski’s disturbing works are an abiding presence throughout — his pieces sprawl across the walls of the clan’s Warsaw apartment, and several scenes take place in his bustling-with-ephemera studio — Matuszynski resists prioritizing either the man’s artistic process or even his clearly troubled interiority. Set almost entirely inside cramped apartments, the movie is a firm study of a family whose supposed Important Man — an inelegant, frequently boorish type who, by his own admission, “eats like a pig,” and, in bookending scenes, shares upsetting sexual fantasies in excruciating detail (“Let’s say I fire up my computer to order a tuned-up version of Alicia Silverstone”) — is but one of many moving parts.

The through-the-years form of Robert Bolesto’s screenplay might strike one as familiar, in the mold of the studio biopic, but the actual concerns of Matuszynski and Bolesto are decidedly not. Most of the dramatic focal points belong to Tomasz (Dawid Ogrodnik), the son of Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn) and his wife, Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna). The story proper kicks off in 1977, with Beksinski and Zofia — who share their apartment with their mothers — picking out a nearby flat for Tomasz. Wracked with sexual hang-ups and suicidal thoughts (“I only consider knives and razor blades in relation to my own wrists,” he says), Tomasz requires constant care from both of his parents, who worry over his well-being. Interestingly, Tomasz grows into something of a cultural omnivore, DJ’ing disco nights, making guest appearances on the radio, and even translating for a live Polish audience a screening of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Beksinski’s bookshelves are just as congested as his son’s, but the tapes crammed onto them are predominantly inward-looking: He records many of his own conversations and, eventually, when the technology allows it, takes to wielding a camcorder in the apartment, making home movies even in moments that scarcely seem to warrant or justify such scrutiny.

Matuszynski (here making his feature debut; he’s previously made shorts and documentaries) and cinematographer Kacper Fertacz stage most of their widescreen imagery at a master shot–type remove, emphasizing the interior architecture of the spaces as much as the people within them. There are certain scenes — like a Christmas-dinner gathering in which the participants are squeezed mercilessly into the middle third of the frame — in which the family seems on the verge of buckling under the pressure of the walls of the apartment. (It’s this visceral strain, along with some doomsday theorizing as the timeline inches toward Y2K, that justifies the apocalyptic overtones of the title.)

Elsewhere, Matuszynski and Fertacz adopt the boxy intimacy of Beksinski’s video camera, which accounts for some of the rawest passages, among them a drawn-out confessional dialogue between mother and son. The sequencing of dramatic moments at times is overwrought: Plunking in one of Tomasz’s destructive physical outbursts just after a warmly paced sequence of Zofia tidying up the apartment seems gratuitous. But the foreboding restraint of the technique, along with the evenhandedness of the narrative attention, makes for an overall gripping combination. The movie sticks in the mind not as a full-on, time-honored biopic but as a queasily warts-and-all peeling back of a family dynamic that happened to involve a figure of cultish renown.

The Last Family
Directed by Jan P. Matuszynski
Now playing, Anthology Film Archives

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