A wealthy family grapples with the sudden loss of Harold, the father and patriarch of the clan. At the reading of the will, however, they discover a strange clause in Harold’s legal document: he wants his body to be stuffed and kept on display in the palatial family residence. If the family doesn’t agree to these terms, then they get none of their inheritance.
The omnipresence of Harold’s body exerts a strange presence as the family grapples with their loss and their unresolved feelings for him. With his dead body as the home’s latest “furnishing,” each family member comes to terms with Harold’s presence in their life as they go through a strangely heightened process of grief.
Writer-director Matt Kazman’s short takes the visual grammar of a wealthy family drama, applies an artful, darkly humorous lens upon it and renders a surprisingly meditative and emotionally rich meditation on family, grief and legacy, all while keeping an eye on how the machinations of wealth can affect the dynamics of love and bonding.
Visually, the film will read for many like a darker, more somber Wes Anderson or legendary Japanese director Yasuhiro Ozu, using formal, portrait-like visual compositions to emphasize the grand yet stilted tableaux the family exists within, whether it’s the ornate family home or the sumptuous yet claustrophobic interiors.
Both luxurious and chilly, these images emphasize both the stifled atmosphere of the family as a whole, and the chilly formality in how its members relate to one another. To leaven the stiltedness, there’s often a dark, deadpan humor in how the scenes are framed, using the vast spaces at the margin of images to hide ironic, humorous flourishes.
The impeccable craftsmanship and visuals emphasize a certain distance and formalism, the emotional territory mined by the film isn’t played for dryness or irony. While there’s a certain biting humor — the kids say their father figurine looks like a “rapist,” for example — there’s also genuine grappling with mortality, grief and unresolved feelings and regrets.
There’s a certain stylized quality to the cast’s collective performance, with a deliberate and even mannerist quality to the rhythms of the dialogue and delivery. But there are also precise, specific moments where genuine flickers of regret, sadness and uncertainty shine through, and their muted quality adds to their underlying heartbreak.
Harold’s constant presence as a corpse reminds the family he left behind of how absent he was emotionally while he was alive, bringing up sadness and anger at the way Harold failed them as a father and husband, and the way he exerted control over them through his wealth, even in his death. It’s this control that is ultimately his final legacy to his family, prompting a kind of unforgettable, hilarious and yet genuine cathartic release.
Despite the initial polish and almost uncanny elegance of its approach to craft, “Father Figurine” isn’t afraid to go into raw emotional territory — and indeed, its formalism and dark humor may indeed make such uncomfortable feelings easier to tiptoe into, for its characters and for the audience.
The anger and regret Harold’s family feels is muted by the film’s formal demands, but it is palpable — and it’s not unlike what many people feel when a family member with whom they have serious baggage passes away. That baggage doesn’t go away with their death, of course. Instead, it becomes part of the larger inheritance they leave behind, and part of the process of grief is accepting these complex feelings and allowing space for them to exist and express themselves.
Only then can those they left behind truly move forward, and find an odd sense of wholeness, within themselves and as a family.