Jan P. Matuszyński’s cinema début combines extreme pessimism with sharp humour. The story of the Beksiński family, told through the wonderful performances of Andrzej Seweryn, Aleksandra Konieczna, and Dawid Ogrodnik, is a touching story about the inevitability of death and coping with it.
There is something incredible in this film which makes us want to re-watch it before we even leave the theatre. We want to touch the characters and revisit the – surprisingly frequent – humorous moments from their lives. And yet The Last Family is not a cinematic antidepressant intended to raise people’s spirits. It is a deeply pessimistic, or in fact depressive, film. Except Matuszyński’s pessimism here is tamed, mature, and warm.
‘You are standing so far apart that I can’t capture you’, Zofia Beksińska says while trying to film her husband and son during a city outing. Her husband, Zdzisław Beksiński, is a renowned painter, and her son Tomek translates movie subtitles and is an emerging radio DJ. This is ‘the last family’, two eccentric men and a woman trying to bring their worlds together.
In their story about the Beksiński family, Jan P. Matuszyński and the screenwriter Robert Bolesto focus on the ties between the three people. They are not interested in Zdzisław Beksiński’s painting or Tomek’s radio career. They paint a portrait of the family’s everyday life and recount the major moments from their history. Trivial observations conjure the cinematic truth – the truth of the era which comes alive on the screen thanks to the excellent cinematography by Kacper Fertacz, but most of all, the truth of the characters – lost, lonely, and weak.
The character that comes into foreground is Zdzisław, masterfully played by Andrzej Seweryn (who received an award for this role at the Locarno Film Festival). He is an ordinary guy from Sanok, a cheerful rationalist, demonstrating a tart sense of humour. He is both funny and scary – very human in his emotions, exhaustion, and helplessness. He has come to terms with his own misanthropy and has learnt how to work with it. ‘I have always dreamt of raping someone. But I knew I would never do it because I condemn violence’, he tells Piotr Dmochowski, his friend and advisor.
Zdzisław has a cold perception of the world, he understands it with his reasoning and not his heart. He even treats his family as an object of observation – just like a behaviourist, he analyses their habits, tries to understand and label them. He constantly photographs. When he buys his first camera, he even shoots family fights with it. He uses a tape recorder to document his family’s conversations.
Tomek is the opposite of the emotionally reserved father. ‘Love is a wonderful feeling, but with all the rest of the things, a man gets exhausted. I don’t know why, but I always put too much on myself’, he wrote in a well known letter to Ewa Kikta. The oversensitive boy raised in the shadow of the famous father lives on the border of depression and hysteria, as he is simultaneously petrified and intrigued by the reality. He is obsessed with death. For years, he threatens his parents that he will commit suicide and even tries to do so several times.
‘The genius father and the genius son’, young Piotr Dmochowski (Andrzej Chyra) says during his first visit at the Beksiński’s household. ‘And the holy spirit’, Ms. Beksińska (Zofia Perczyńska) adds jokingly.
Her joke says everything about Zofia’s character. In Aleksandra Konieczna’s interpretation, she is the good spirit of the family home and the most important link holding the family together. This Romance studies scholar is a mediator, a loving wife and an overprotective mother, guardian, cleaner, cook, and driver all at the same time.
Konieczna’s role only seemingly disappears in the turmoil of idiosyncrasies and the eccentric performances from Seweryn and Ogrodnik. Konieczna stands in the shadow, but she strongly marks her presence. Her protagonist is like that ‘Polish love’ from Wojciech Młynarski’s song, ready to pay any price for the happiness of her dear ones. She is the one preparing Zdzisław’s instant coffee, without which he is unable to work, she cleans Tomek’s apartment while he is away, and when their son visits them for dinner – she puts a small fan next to the hot potatoes, so that they're ready to eat quicker. Thanks to Konieczna, Zofia’s character becomes poignantly fragile and ordinary, yet at the same time the most incredible out of the three of them.
Acting ambivalence determines the artistry of Matuszyński’s film – Andrzej Seweryn, who could easily turn Beksiński into a weirdo and psychopath, instead creates a fully comprehensive image of the artist’s intentions and beliefs – even when he convinces a doctor not to rescue his son after an attempted suicide and when he coldly observes his deceased mother.
In comparison to the restrained Seweryn, Dawid Ogrodnik’s acting appears to be overly expressive. The young actor once again shows that he is able to completely immerse himself in a role. He doesn’t play Tomek Beksiński, but becomes him. He thunders and teases, sometimes coming close to a caricature, but never becoming it.
Death on five
Matuszyński’s film is very masterful, but it is not a masterpiece, mainly because the dramaturgy doesn’t keep up with the psychology. Matuszyński presents his characters as if they were pawns shuffled around the board of life by a dark force, some kind of Evil Demiurge from Cioran’s writings. While in a classic film drama, a protagonist’s task is to fight the obstacles and to complete a journey which will change everything, Matuszyński’s characters are victims of fate. They don’t control their lives even for a moment, they are unable to face it. They can only take punches. Death is inevitable – which is why it causes no emotion.
Matuszyński observes the life tragedies of his protagonists both from within and from a distance. Just like his protagonist – he scrutinises, analyses, doesn’t comment. This is the source of the coldness of The Last Family. And yet, it is hard to resist the feeling that this film narrative is constructed like a domino structure, where the first block knocks over the next one and so on. The rest is mechanics. And it is this mechanisation that weakens the overall impression.
And it makes a massive impression, as Matuszyński talks about the price of despair that one pays for a lack of illusions. One of the most interesting scenes shows the Christmas Eve in the Beksiński house. The grandmothers and Tomek’s mother are saying a prayer. At the same time, Zdzisław and Tomek are unpacking the presents, enthusiastically discussing the new camera which they found under the Christmas tree. The sacred meets the profane, which overpowers and ridicules it. Beksiński’s world, as well as the reality of Matuszyński’s film, is a world without God, without illusion, and false hope. It is dire, and yet utterly true.
The Last Family is one of the most powerful Polish cinematic débuts of the recent years. The author of the documentary Deep Love has tackled the story of the Beksiński family and told it in a very mature way, avoiding clichés about the supposed Beksiński family curse. In Matuszyński’s film, the only curse is life, with its pain and challenges. This is why this film portrait of the Beksiński family ends up being so moving and real.
The Last Family, director: Jan P. Matuszyński, screenplay: Robert Bolesto. Cinematography: Kacper Fertacz. Cast: Andrzej Seweryn, Dawid Ogrodnik, Aleksandra Konieczna, Andrzej Chyra. Polish premiere: 30th September, 2016.Bartosz Staszczyszyn