Film Review – Child’s Pose
Many movies ask how far a parent is willing to go to protect their child. In most of these movies, the parent and child are forces of good torn apart by malevolent agents and their drama is a cathartic struggle. In Child’s Pose, a Romanian film directed by Calin Peter Netzer, things are a little more ambiguous. Is protection equivalent to love? Can a parent love too much? What if the child isn’t really worth the trouble? There are no objective answers to these questions and Child’s Pose doesn’t pretend to offer any, but what it does present is a fascinating character study and an exceptional performance from seasoned Romanian actress, Luminita Gheorghiu, as Cornelia, a fiercely calculating and cold mother who goes to great lengths to protect her disengaged son from trouble of his own making.
Cornelia’s son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), has been out of contact with his mother for a long time. We learn all this from an opening scene where Cornelia talks of Barbu as if he were a past lover spurning her advances, having moved on to another woman. When we later learn she’d been talking about her son, it adds a disturbing depth. Exactly why Barbu is estranged from his family is never said, but we get the idea. Cornelia is a domineering, forceful woman stern of face who smothers those around her with her own perceived superiority. While much of this entitlement must surely come from her status as an elite member of the Romanian upper crust, she’s also earned her respect: she’s a savvy businesswoman with a prestigious career as an architect. But entitlement is entitlement and her privilege is most apparent when she attempts to manipulate those beneath her with her power.
There is a telling scene where Cornelia invites her maid to the kitchen for coffee and, because everything Cornelia does serves a larger purpose, we find out this maid also cleans at Barbu’s house. Cornelia begins asking questions. The world weary maid answers that they are converting Barbu’s office into a nursery and you can see in her resigned face that this line of questioning has been used on her before. When Cornelia asks what books are on his nightstand – whether or not the books by Orhan Pamuk or Herta Müller are there, books she bought him because “they won the Nobel Prize, you know” – the maid shrugs. She attempts to steer this interrogation into conversation by talking about the last book she read, but Cornelia has no interest. As a payoff for the information, the maid is offered a pair of expensive, high fashion heels. The ridiculousness of the gift is lost on Cornelia.
This character enlightening scene also clues us into the true intentions of the film: it is a dissection and examination of the class structure of Romania. Cornelia and her sister-in-law, move back and forth across the screen bedecked in furs and leather and ostentatious jewelry. They have the latest smartphones and rub elbows with surgeons and world class opera singers. When Barbu gets into a fatal car accident that kills a small child, the grieving family is seen as “simple folk.” They are of the peasant class and when Cornelia meets the dead child’s parents to offer her condolences, the culture clash is palpable.
This meeting, too, serves a purpose. She needs to be outwardly gracious and kind to this family in an appeal to their good graces. She does this in the hopes of them lessening or dropping the charges against her son. This is because Cornelia will do anything to protect her son. Whenever we see her son, however, we wonder if he’s at all worth protecting. He’s distant and detached and resents his mother so much he can barely utter a word to her. And this is the film’s sole weakness. There is a tragedy, likely oedipal, at the core of Cornelia and Barbu’s relationship, but the film skirts around it, never tackles it head on. We never fully understand Barbu, or what has gotten him to this state, he’s a poorly drawn character in a film where even background characters such as the maid, the police officers and the potential true culprit of the accident are fully fleshed out. He’s the weakest link in a very sturdy chain.
Gheorghiu’s performance more than makes up for this, though. She’s a wonder. In what could have been a melodramatic role, we are blessed with an expertly nuanced and subtle performance. There is no scenery chewing here. Cornelia feels lived-in, like an authentic flesh and blood individual and the handheld camerawork adds to the documentary feel of the narrative. Cornelia isn’t portrayed as outright evil, but as a complex combination of resentment, entitlement and most of all love. It’s a master class performance and itself alone worth the price of admission.