“A mother’s love” has rarely felt more dagger-like or malevolent than in the chilling morality thriller Child’s Pose. Part anatomy of a villain and part crime procedural, Calin Peter Netzer’s film follows what happens after a domineering upper-class Bucharest mother finds out her coddled son has been accused of running down and killing a young boy from the outskirts of town. It’s another in a series of European films (Italy’s The Great Beauty, in particular) that have served as X-rays of societies riddled with corruption like mold veined through a hunk of old cheese. What makes Child’s Pose even more affecting is that many of its characters come off as spiritually corrupt as the society at large. And the rot comes from the top.
Although the mother, Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu), identifies herself as an architect and decorator, her primary job looks to be keeping up appearances and fussing over her thirty-something son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache). She swans through her glittering birthday party at the film’s outset with cigarette and head held regally high. Her family and friends are doctors, politicians, and opera sopranos. One gets the sense there are few people worth knowing in Bucharest whom she’s more than two degrees of separation from. Away from the party’s lights and music, though, she’s a more shadowy and less assured person. She obsesses over Barbu’s dissatisfactory (to her) life — particularly the daughter-in-law whom she despises as venomously as any craggy-faced Disney stepmonster — even dispatching her maid on spying expeditions. On a good day, she puts most of her energy into smoking, plotting, and considering the ways that people and life have failed her. Not for nothing is her nickname “Controlia.”
When the news comes of Barbu’s accident, Cornelia launches into full upper-class wrath. Bold-faced names are thrown around, the gears of influence oiled. It’s a cold and fearsome performance from Gheorghiu in these scenes, with those hard-set eyes and coiled violence not so hidden behind her bourgeois exterior. After she peppers the police at the station with questions and quasi-threatening pronouncements (calling them “hyenas ganging up on my baby”), one sarcastically snipes back, “Yes, you’re well-informed and well-connected.”
Of course, not long after, the same cop pointedly asks her about helping out a friend of his with a legal property issue; she agrees to call somebody. The influence peddling is so matter-of-fact that it scarcely occurs to Cornelia to do anything different. Within no time at all, she’s sitting down to coffee with a witness to the accident, trying to ascertain how much money he would need to change his story. He comes prepared with a price, knowing how such things work just as much as the dead boy’s enraged relative who tries to attack Cornelia at the police station; both men know full well how the scales of justice are weighted with money and class.
After the first scenes with the police, Child’s Pose threads a crime procedural into its claustrophobic family drama. Netzer shoots everything close and dark, the Eastern European gloom clouding over even the outdoor scenes, but doesn’t let the film sink into moodiness. The mother-son drama has a snap to it, especially the deeper it burrows into the morality of the accident. Not for an instant does Cornelia consider Barbu’s guilt or innocence. The only thing that matters is protecting her son, whom she refers to more often as simply “the boy.” There’s a Tennessee Williams play’s worth of decadent dysfunction between the two of them.
Barbu himself is a soft and selfish mess of an arrested adolescent who deflects responsibility like a mirror flashing back light. He knows she will get him out of anything. Dumitrache’s demeanor is so layered, however, that Barbu reads as not just some grown-up brat. His resentment of his dependency is palpable amidst the Oediapl vibes subtly thrown off by Gheorghiu. Later in the film, when the two of them finally meet the victim’s family, they look to be finally thrown off their guard as the cold light of the outer world finally comes shining into their cloistered tunnel of a relationship. It’s a complex and mysterious conclusion, but disappointingly truncated.
A box-office smash in Romania — where its title, “Your Baby’s Position,” had greater resonance — Child’s Pose won the Golden Bear at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and was curiously passed over for last year’s foreign film Academy Awards. Although very specific to the conditions of its country, the universality of its dilemmas and the stark but complicated villainy of its theatrically corrupted mother and son make this an easily translatable story.