Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ND/NF ’17: The Last Family

Polish surrealist artist Zdzisław Beksiński’s paintings were Giger-esque but his habits were downright Nixonian. He taped a lot. Far more than his family realized. As a result, he left behind a treasure trove of source material for his bio-pic treatment. Home is where the dysfunction is for the Beksińskis, as viewers witness in no uncertain terms throughout Jan P. Matuszynski’s painfully faithful drama, The Last Family (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

The senior Beksiński is afraid of spiders, which further adds to his eccentricity. His son Tomasz is essentially afraid of life, which makes him a constant burden on his parents. Old Zdzisław is inclined to take a more “tough love” approach, but his wife Zofia coddles and indulges him. Although never a household name, Beksiński was already famous enough in the 1970s to lead a life of relative comfort. However, his fateful meeting with Paris-based art journalist and gallery agent Piotr Dmochowski takes him to a much higher level of remuneration.

Dmochowski also facilitated Tomasz’s career as a DJ and pop culture commentator by schlepping over the latest music and VHS releases from the West. Unfortunately, Tomasz’s severe depression coupled with what might have been mild schizophrenia remain a constant source of anxiety for his long-suffering parents.

There are some enormously discomfiting scenes in Last Family, especially when you consider Beksiński probably left behind a tape of each meltdown in question happening in real life. Matuszynski focuses exclusively on the family angst, barely noting the revolutionary macro changes sweeping across Poland. Knowing what they are ignoring, we can get a sense of how distracting and wearying it must have been for the Beksińskis to constantly worry about Tomasz’s fragile state of mind, assuming viewers have that a priori knowledge. However, many might not necessarily understand the stigma attached to mental illness during the Communist era and the dubious treatment options (including sanitariums, whose primary function was the interrogation of political prisoners), which surely made their situation worse.

Regardless, the primary cast-members are all apparently scary dead-ringers for the Beksińskis. Andrzej Seweryn makes the patriarch’s self-absorbed prickliness strangely human and forgivable. Frankly, Dawid Ogrodnik’s Tomasz is such a face-palm inducing disaster area, most viewers will quickly align themselves with Team Zdzisław. His implosions are so convincing, they become excruciating to watch. Poor Aleksandra Konieczna is stuck playing the thankless sainted mother role, but Andrzej Chyra (recognizable from Katyń and Strike) adroitly tethers the film to reality as Dmochowski, the slightly mercenary audience surrogate.

Well, okay then. Maybe your family isn’t so bad after all. Arguably, Matuszynski’s voyeuristic take on Beksiński family values is everything the laughable Ossage County was cracked up to be, succeeding where the Meryl Streep vehicle face-planted, because it is not undermined by embarrassingly hammy, cornball performances. Rather, Matuszynski and company take the audience to some disturbingly true places. Recommended for those who take their coffee and their family drama bitter and black, The Last Family screens this Thursday (3/16) at MoMA and Saturday (3/18) at the Walter Reade, as part ND/NF 2017.