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Jan P. Matuszyński’s The Last Family — a fictionalized biopic about Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński’s troubled relationship with his son — begins with narration over a pitch-black screen, a surefire sign that the film’s themes are about to be elucidated. Beksiński (Andrzej Seweryn) explains, “The things I’m imagining, the things that engage my attention, are all taking place in some made-up meta-reality.” The film then cuts to a visual of the artist in old age, decked out in suspenders and grandpa aviators, sitting across from a friend whose back is to the camera. Beksiński gleefully describes the possibilities of computer technology, which he claims will create the opportunity to produce an ideal woman to abuse and dominate users who are so inclined. He closes this conversation by saying, “But I won’t live to see this type of virtual reality come true.” (This is a statement of fact, not an old man’s regretful lament; by the end, we will witness Beksiński’s violent 2005 stabbing death at the hands of his caretakers’ teenaged son. The youth’s motives remain mysterious in the film.) This opening narrows the viewer’s focus to the flaw that will cause the ruin of the painter and his family over the film’s two hours. Our protagonist is a man so obsessed with control that he dreams of possibilities for dominance that he will never see.
Born 1929 in Sanok, Poland, Zdzisław started his professional life as an architect, which possibly explains his tendency toward structure and order. His artistic career began in earnest with dystopian surrealist oil paintings, most of which were untitled. His pieces feature torture and body horror in barren lands far removed from Earth. In one, a humanoid creature with a head resembling a ball of white twine and an ovular black blob of a body skitters in front of a burning red cityscape. In another, red leaves and vines engulf a stone gazebo standing beside an ocean and against the backdrop of a sepia starfield. Often painted to the strains of classical music, these images are engrossing portals to strange worlds that combine the terror tableaux of Bruegel with the van mural fantasy of Frank Frazetta, making for a distinctive body of work worthy of attention.
The director is far more interested in the drama of the Beksiński family’s day-to-day relations, which are engaging enough to justify moving the focus away from the surreal art. Zdzisław lives with his wife (Aleksandra Konieczna) and their mothers (Zofia Perczynska and Danuta Nagórna.) His frequently suicidal son Tomek (Dawid Ogrodnik) occupies an apartment upstairs.
Since the film gives little screen time to the painter’s mind-bending masterpieces, Ogrodnik’s performance as Tomek provides the otherwise missing unpredictable element that the film needs. His reedy, wavering voice gives the impression of a pouty, needy child. The son’s coiffure likewise fluctuates, with his hair moving between the extremes of a young Charles Manson/Brian Wilson shag-and-beard combo and male pattern baldness. A portrait of instability, Tomek charges his father at one point with the responsibility for his psychological distress. “Maybe if you had spanked me, even just once,” he says, “I could’ve figured out where the boundaries lie.” Zdzisław’s obsession with exploring boundaries is so overwhelming that he never took time to delineate them for his son.
A large portion of the film’s shots show characters surrounded by physical boundaries, like doorways and halls. During a dinner, we see the family through a doorway. Their gathering is the focus of the shot, but it only fills 20 percent of the screen. The other 80 percent is a bookshelf to the left of the entrance and a wall to its right. Besides being a clever way to keep the proceedings visually dynamic despite most of the film occurring in the Beksińskis’ apartment, this oft-repeated technique recalls the way Zdzisław’s wild worlds are constrained by the edges of the canvas.
Most importantly, these shots echo the family’s true sickness: Zdzisław’s voyeurism. His interest in photography means that home video cameras — which get sleeker as the years go on — are an integral part of the proceedings. Whenever the aspect ratio of a shot tightens and the definition degrades, the audience is looking at camcorder footage.
When Tomek sits at the kitchen table and despairs to his mother about his disinterest in romantic companionship, the director captures their conversation from this perspective. It can be assumed that neither know about the recording, since Tomek regularly turns his back to the camera. As they talk about the illusion of love and its attainability, Zdzisław walks through the frame and looks directly at the lens, indicating his agency in filming his family. With this gaze, the audience becomes complicit in the artist’s manipulations, turning into conspirators in his quest for total control of his world.
The final scenes become that much more heartbreaking in this context. As Zdzisław’s controlling tendencies lead to isolation in old age, the audience experiences his frustration with his unfamiliar surroundings. The Last Family — a domestic horror story portraying the violent dissolution of a family— forces viewers to ask how much they might share the painter’s obsessions, presenting a chilling cautionary tale to warn them away from his violent fate.
The Last Family will screen at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street) March 16 and at Film Society of Lincoln Center (Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza #7) March 18, as a part of New Directors/New Films 2017.