Film Reviews

Review: ‘The Beksinskis: A Sound and Picture Album’

Hot Docs 2018


The Beksinskis: A Sound and Picture Album
(Poland, 80 min.)
Dir. Marcin Borchardt
Programme: Artscapes (North American Premiere)

Life, for Polish painter Zdzislaw Beksinski and his son, music journalist Tomek, is a dark joke. Beksinski père responded with art—his expressionist, Gothic, corpse-ridden paintings made him one of Poland’s best-known artists of the second half of the 20th century. Beksinski fils responded with radio, where he championed New Wave and New Romantic music to an adoring audience. But where Zdzislaw learned to live with his depression, Tomek did not. He attempted suicide many times before finally succeeding (if that’s the word for it) on Christmas Day, 1999.

That’s where The Beksinskis begins. Voiceover, derived from Zdzislaw’s diaries, tells us of Tomek’s suicide, and expresses relief (if that’s the word for it) that Zosia—Zdzislaw’s wife, Tomek’s mother—did not live to see it.

It’s heavy, alright. But that’s only half of it. The Beksinskis’ — and The Beksinskis’ — sensibility has a lot to do with that pitch-black humour so distinctively Eastern European. When they vent their spleen at the absurdity of life, they don’t so much whine as laugh.

The film is constructed almost entirely from the Beksinskis’ materials: a trove of home videos and diaries, mainly. It’s an interesting approach, but it does have obvious limitations. For instance, the voiceover often tells us that Tomek is extremely sensitive, hates to be around people and spends most of his time alone—but we rarely actually see that side of him. We do see, in arguments with his parents, discussion of depression and his yearning for his childhood home. But for the most part the Tomek we see is kind of a cool dude, a radio DJ with a big music collection, plenty of friends and a nice smile who dresses in a vampire’s cape (over a t-shirt) when he’s invited onto a talk show.

In one sense, it’s not a major gripe: the story is still coherent and powerful. But in another sense, it might be. Stuck with its subjects’ representations of themselves, the film never quite figures out what it thinks of them, their relationship—more fraternal than paternal, often callous—their worldviews, their tragedy—which, spoiler alert, ends with Zdzislaw’s murder by a teenager in 2005. Stopping short of offering any insight extrinsic to the Beksinskis’ own, the film ends up the exact kind of dark joke they understood their existence to be.

The Beksinskis screens:
-Tues, May 1 at 3“45 PM at Isabel Bader
-Thurs, May 3 at 9:00 PM at Hart House
-Sat, May 5 at the Revue

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

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