Or perhaps a better question, can you forget yourself to enter one? As I sat in rows of plush theater seats at the Chicago Film Festival last week, these are the questions I pondered. What are the elements of good storytelling, and how is the director coupling them with cinematographic effects to create a rich experience for those of us in the audience?
While at the festival, I viewed The Last Family, a Polish film directed by Jan P. Matuszyński that vividly presents the dismal, but true, familial life of painter. I had never heard of this artist before watching the film, and I still know next to nothing about his works or professional life, which speaks to an interesting decision on the director’s part. Matuszyński and Robert Bolesto, the script writer, chose to tell Beksiński’s story from his apartment. Often uncomfortable at times, the viewer is allowed the awkward third seat just outside the doorway of this family’s personal life.
In this particular narrative, the plot is life. The waking and the sleeping, the eating and the saving, the cleaning and the dying. We see the tense, yet loving, relationship between parents Zofia and Zdislaw and their tormented son Tomek play out as he moves out of the apartment and grapples with his inner demons, that continue to threaten his professional and social life. In the midst of anchoring their suicidal son, the couple must also tend to the slowly dying grandmother and process the aneurism that causes Zofia’s imminent death.
To tell the eccentric Beksiński story from this angle requires a special imagination, which Matuszyński has. This film is characterized by long shots of people’s faces in the midst of their social interactions. The emphasis is on the reactions and words of the people, as opposed to whatever might have been occupying their hands. Dialogue and emotive action drove the story line. In the film, three funerals are briefly portrayed, and in each one, the lengthy shot frames the cramped extended family as they mourn. There are no panning shots of graveyards or people walking or interacting for long periods with the casket. Instead, Matusyński is committed to capturing the facial expressions.
In another scene in which Tomek is ranting to his mother in the kitchen, Matusyński creatively employs another method of facial emphasis. For most of the dialogue in this section, the shot is focused on a stationary Zofia while Tomek raves about the room in a blur. The viewer enters the scene through Zofia’s reactions to Tomek and is forced to fill in the blanks for what they cannot see.
While he was still alive, Beksiński often captured the raw moments of his family’s life on film, so naturally Matusyński employed this tactic as well. We see a variety of moments through this special lens. The audience is there, a member of the family, in the happy, in the awkward, in the dark. This familial intimacy is juxtaposed by shots that keep the viewer outside the room. We are like the guest who stands awkwardly in the hall pretending to be a wall flower while the family bickers and mourns. There is a specific dinner scene that we watch through a doorway that made me feel this way. The entire scene was one shot that I uncomfortably peeked in from the hall to see.
Overall, the concept of Matursyński’s film is to depict a more-or-less realistic interpretation of an actual event, an actual life. It was unique to watch the film with a group of Poles who were invested in the dramatic telling of Beksiński’s story. They had for the most part only been exposed to the professional and public side of his life. Matuszyński gave them a new version to the old story, and allowed the rest of us to tag along as well.