Parent Trap

02.12.14

Calin Peter Netzer, Child’s Pose, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 112 minutes. Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu).


INCHILD’S POSE, director Calin Peter Netzer offers a fresh look at the ancient prototype of the “monstrous mother.” Cornelia, an upper-class architect in post-Communist Romania, is so unabashedly controlling, invasive, and suffocating that she eerily conjures the atmosphere of a Stalinist state: Big Brother reincarnated as Mommie Dearest. Though we may at first sympathize a bit as Cornelia bemoans her son Barbu’s absence from her birthday party, we soon realize her true nature in her response to his involvement in a tragic accident. From the moment she learns that his reckless driving has caused a child’s death, she stops at nothing to ensure that he escapes full responsibility: interfering with police procedure, making her son lie about how fast he was driving, trying to bribe a witness to change his testimony, and ransacking Barbu’s apartment for the presence of drugs and medications that could jeopardize his case. There is no clearer sign of the unhealthiness of their relationship than the scene of Cornelia giving her acquiescent son an erotically tinged massage. So when we learn later that Barbu frequently fails to climax during intercourse with his lover, Carmen, we are hardly surprised.

The great strength of the film is that it escapes the stereotypical reduction that such conspicuously pathological behavior would suggest. Thanks to the brilliant, utterly convincing central performance by Luminita Gheorghiu as Cornelia, and a strong, sympathetic Bogdan Dumitrache as her son, the characters are continually surprising and complex, difficult to dismiss as “types.” We think we “get” Barbu immediately when he yields to his mother’s bullying takeover at the police station, but when later he demands that she return the keys to his apartment, we glimpse signs of the resistance his present circumstances have aroused. Here is an overgrown boy who wants desperately to be a man, barely coping with a tragedy that unwittingly becomes an opportunity to change his life. Eventually, he confronts Cornelia—not angrily, though hardly with affection—and says that if any future relationship is possible between them, he must make the first move, however long it takes. The alternative, he flatly declares, is nothing at all. It’s a brutal, understated exchange between mother and son that rings wholly and painfully true, but which is rarely performed as free of melodrama and theatrics as it is here.

Neither Barbu’s father nor Carmen can stand up to Cornelia; only the witness she tries to bribe seems a match. But if anything is as continually compelling as Gheorghiu’s Cornelia, it is Andrei Butica’s masterly, restless camerawork, which scrutinizes every scene as if it were another character. So attuned is the camera to the subtlest shifts in action and performance, even to the nuances of a look or a word, that its repeated pans left and right, from character to character, are neither redundant nor routine. Indeed, in registering genuine surprise at each development, the camera behaves as if it had no prior knowledge of the screenplay.

In the deceptively simple final scene, Cornelia, Barbu, and Carmen visit the parents of the dead child. Unsurprisingly, mother appeals to the parents while son waits in the car. Rather crudely, she plays her “only son” card, and when they refuse money for the funeral, she insists they take it for their “other” son. Despite the bluntness of her purpose—to win their forgiveness and prevent Barbu’s imprisonment—Gheorghiu’s performance imbues Cornelia here with the complexity of emotions at play: Her efforts to identify with the family’s grief are manipulative, but they are fueled by her awareness that she has in effect also lost her only son for different, but equally irreparable reasons. True to the film’s tendency to eschew melodrama in favor of a more ambiguous truth, the emotions that suffuse the scene are capped by a simple, unanticipated gesture. As they are about to drive off, Barbu sees the father standing outside of the house; he suddenly demands that his mother unlock the car door, gets out, and walks back to face the man. Neither uttering a word and barely a foot apart, the space between them—charged with everything that cannot be said—is quietly breached when the father reaches out to take Barbu’s hand. Significantly, we see this gesture indirectly, reflected in the side-view mirror of the car—that is, obliquely, not actually, from Cornelia’s point of view. The choice is both calculated and subtle: The image within the mirror can be read as a sign of Barbu’s independence, but the frame around it connotes his mother’s continued, if decentralized, presence in his life.

Tony Pipolo

Child’s Pose opens at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday, February 19 and at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on Friday, February 21, 2014.