Jan P. Matuszynski’s The Last Family reconstructs nearly 30 years in the life of Zdzislaw Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn), a famous Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor whose family remained perpetually on the precipice of ruin due to his son Tomek’s (Dawid Ogrodnik) chronic emotional problems. Matuszynski stages a collection of scenes, based on Beksinski’s own home-video footage, that intimate Tomek’s manic-depressive tendencies and sexual dysfunction as a primary source of the family’s tension but stops short of interrogating these facets in order to form a meaningful argument about them. Instead, the leering approach devolves into a succession of sobering moments of grief as Zdzislaw silently reckons with his inability to help his son and salvage his relationship with his spouse, Zosia (Aleksandra Konieczna).
Robert Bolesto’s screenplay tends to literalize its theme of unfulfilled desire by having characters explicitly lament their lost pasts. The Last Family opens in 2005, with Zdzislaw declaring to a biographer his fantasy of owning a virtual reality sexbot that looks like Alicia Silverstone. His admission initially seems like a kooky and random instance of characterization, but by the film’s end the filmmakers return to it and the confession takes on a forced determination as Zdzislaw also admits that he’s always fantasized about raping someone but doesn’t have any actual interest in attempting the act. Thus, The Last Family makes thuddingly clear through these bookends its obsession with the apparently thin line between actual and virtual forms of desire and, by extension, the constraints of historical representation.
Matuszynski relegates nearly every scene to the confines of the family’s home or, when seldom venturing outside of it, to tightly composed takes that follow a primary character’s actions. Tomek’s psychological traumas are contrasted by his expertise as a music critic and English translator, each of which the filmmakers represent with an emblematic example: Tomek making a guest appearance on a radio show in 1982 to debut Yazoo’s “Don’t Go” and live-translating a screening of 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me to a crowded auditorium. These happier occurrences are directly contrasted with Tomek’s sexual impotence and suicidal tendencies, such as when he attempts to blow up his apartment and winds up bloodied at the doorstep of his parents’ home. Much like the film’s overarching binary between the real and the virtual, the characters are perpetually either on a high or hitting rock bottom.
The Last Family typifies the more voyeuristic inclinations of the contemporary biopic. The film neither cares to illuminate Zdzislaw’s interests as an artist nor relates how the family’s problems intersect with political and public life in Poland. Unlike, say, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, which uses a defective family unit as an allegory for an entire nation’s demise, this film has no greater view of the social or political panorama that contributes to these people’s need to inflict harm on themselves and one another.
Any potentially useful object lesson in the difficulties of reenacting history short-circuits into an increasingly sadistic litany of violent scenarios, with the filmmakers lingering over character deaths to maximize the effect of their gruesomeness. That includes a bizarre depiction of plane crash that unfolds in a single take as Tomek scrambles to save his own life. Yet Matuszynski saves his most egregious abuse for last when a character is brutally stabbed to death—also in a single take. These stark displays of violence are nothing but cheap shock tactics, as if the director wasn’t sure that his pessimistic viewpoint had been fully felt throughout The Last Family’s moribund plod from one blanket assertion of life’s unmerciful grip to the next.