One of the great pleasures of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, aside from its generally friendly atmosphere, and awesome local tipple Becherovka, is that its timing and the breadth of its selection gives us the chance to catch up with films we, for one reason or another, missed at festivals previously. And so it was with Calin Peter Netzer‘s “Child’s Pose,” a film that didn’t make it onto our radar in advance at all, but then snuck up and took the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale, while we were probably, statistically speaking, in the next theater over watching a James Franco movie. But while were immensely impressed by the central performance by Luminita Gheorghiu (a towering actress of the Romanian New Wave, with “The Death of Mr Lazarescu“ and two Cristian Mungiu titles “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Beyond the Hills” among her many credits), the film itself fell a little short of the expectations such praise had set up: unlike some other examples of recent Romanian cinema, “Child’s Pose” occasionally feels like it dislikes its characters, and wishes us to force similar judgement upon them. But if the results are a little dubious, that aim is cannily achieved, because usually favoring a particular character’s point of view is exactly what makes us sympathize specifically with that character. But here, though it’s no doubt Cornelia’s (Gheorghiu) story, we are constantly met with examples of the blind, corrupting ferocity of her mother’s love for her son, even as he repeatedly withdraws from her, and so she’s gradually revealed as little short of monstrous, until a final scene so brilliantly acted that it transcends and goes some way toward justifying the approach to that point.
Cornelia is a member of the privileged bourgeois elite of contemporary Bucharest society. She attends opera rehearsals and has a lavish birthday party thrown in her honor: she is well-connected. But when her son Barbu, who we know has estranged himself from her, for which she blames his girlfriend, hits and kills a young boy in his car one night, the tone of the film starts to morph from what initially seems like a droll, perhaps rueful comedy of manners to a much darker and more corrosive character study. Cornelia snaps into action, getting Barbu to change his statement, cajoling and bribing the police to turn a blind eye to certain details, attempting to bribe a witness, and stacking the investigation with experts predisposed to be in her corner. Throughout all of this, the much poorer parents of the dead child get only cursory thought from her, and then more as a problem to be solved somehow (she needs them to drop the case against her son) than as grieving, justifiably angry, fellow human beings, and fellow parents at that.
She may not be the head of a gangster clan nor is she ordering assassinations, but Cornelia’s ruthlessness and her maternal instinct, so pronounced and overwhelming as to almost be a perversion of traditional ideals of motherhood, really put us in mind of the the unforgettable turn that Jacki Weaver gave in “Animal Kingdom.” Yes, Gheorghiu is that good. But the focus on her comes at the expense of the supporting characters, notably the guilt-ridden son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) and his girlfriend Carmen (Ilinca Goia). The film has both characters share at least one scene with Cornelia in which a revelation threatens but is bitten-back or never fully articulated, which doubtless contributes to the bleak truthfulness on offer, but also frustrates our desire for a deeper understanding of any of these peripheral characters. This is especially marked in an exchange that happens late on between mother and son: “I know you don’t love me,” says Cornelia to him, evoking, as she does elsewhere a relationship closer to that of lovers than mother and child, “but I only want you to respect me.” Barbu’s response hints at something cathartic coming, but then Carmen arrives and the moment is lost. Similarly, a potentially explosive scene between Cornelia and her henpecked husband, after Barbu rails at him for being “putty” around Cornelia, also sputters away to nothing as she simply badgers and bickers at him after Barbu leaves and concludes disdainfully “he’s right. You really are putty.”
But just when the film has begun to tax our patience, and the restless camerawork has started to grate a little, we enter the home straight in a climax that almost manages to make sense of every directorial decision that has come before. We don’t want to run the risk of even remotely spoiling it, though it’s not a twist or a revelation, rather a logical extension of where the story has been tending. But what’s remarkable about it are the long close up takes on Cornelia’s face, as she delivers an extraordinary monologue which the understanding of her that we’ve derived from the rest of the film has us parsing, sifting through, examining minutely to discover if she’s genuine or if this is another of her ploys. But Gheorghiu, a truly great actress, is here playing the part of a woman who is herself a great actress, and we can’t catch either out, and the film goes into its end credits having perfectly preserved this ambivalence. The last quarter of “Child’s Pose” is so remarkably strong that it makes a sometimes grim journey worth sticking with to its destination. [B]