The Kowalsky family was once powerful and wealthy, but over the years the fortune has dissipated and the members themselves have scattered. But the only son, Jean, is now visiting his widowed mother to beg his mother for money to provide for his new family.
The mother is bitter and resentful of her son, and the ensuing row causes years of conflict and anger to bubble to the surface. When Jean takes matters into his own hands, he sets off an unexpected chain of events that opens a new chapter in this family saga.
Written and directed by Emile Schlesser, this short drama is about family, but there's nothing warm and fuzzy about the Kowalskys. Bitter, vengeful and petty, the Kowalskys may now be in decline, but the matriarch still has the entitlement and snobbery of wealth and privilege, and when her son comes to ask for money, she lets him know her low opinion of him in no uncertain terms.
The film has an intriguing complexity of tone, with elements of melodrama, film noir and dry, dark comedy coming together to embody the peculiar and toxic atmosphere of the Kowalsky family. The gaudy yet seedy production and costume design particularly evoke wealth and glamour gone to seed, an overly busy opulence poisoned by years of neglect and resentment that's captured with ironically elegant camerawork and framing. The dialogue, too, captures two characters wrangling over pent-up frustrations, with actors Josiane Peiffer and Raoul Schlechter both playing two family members with different temperaments but still dysfunctionally connected over their mutual disappointment in one another.
After their final argument, the film's plot veers in an unexpected direction, leaning into artful, almost sinister suspense that pitched, beat by beat, to pull us into a web of deception and deceit -- with perhaps a touch of farce to leaven the darkness. But it sets up a final confrontation -- one that ends with a seething yet pathetic note that captures the Kowalsky family name.
Terrible families have long been a staple of storytelling, starting from Greek mythology and onward, but the darkly witty "Kowalsky" has a particularly heightened, stylish take that entertains and amuses, even as it captures the toxic influence that parents can exert over their children. Even well past childhood, a selfish, cold and judgmental parent can hurt their progeny with a single contemptuous glance or comment. And though it ends with a seemingly happy ending, the film has an arch, knowing insight into how cycles of dysfunction can continue, even when we think we're free of family trauma and suffering. Just when you think you've escaped... you never know when something will come back to haunt you.