Child’s Pose mounts a stinging attack on Romanian bourgeois corruption that avoids didacticism or familiarity by assuming an unconventional perspective. The story is found in the ripples resulting from a car accident that leaves a child dead and the driver potentially facing charges; however, it is not told from the point of view of the driver – 32-year-old Barbu, played by Bogdan Dumitrache – nor the grieving parents. Instead, we watch through the eyes of Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorgiu), Barbu’s mother and an unapologetic representative of the entitled upper class.
Gheorgiu is critical to the film’s success. She delivers a compelling performance of a complex character. It remains a rarity in cinema to see a female character of this age (Cornelia is in her sixties), especially one so bitterly unsympathetic. When she learns her son is responsible – whether through ill-fate or neglect – for the death of a child, her reaction is cold and calculated. She manipulates her “connections,” bullying timid police officers and rewriting her son’s statement in a stomach-churning scene worthy of a thriller. We squirm as we watch the wheels of justice being greased until they are derailed.
Like most of the films of the Romanian New Wave, Child’s Pose is preoccupied with the realities of contemporary Romania. Director Calin Netzer presents a grim portrait of post-Ceaușescu society. Cornelia, decked in furs and festooned with gold jewellery, meets little resistance in her mission to “save” her son from the anguished accusations of the dead child’s grieving, lower-class parents. The brutal shadow of communism may have receded, but inequality seems inescapable.
The second half of the film shifts focus from the minutiae of the police investigation to the strained relationship between Cornelia and Barbu. It becomes clear that Cornelia’s tenacity is inspired less by any deep familial bond than a sense of propriety, a conviction that her family should not be beholden to the vagaries of the law. She expects reality to acquiesce to her expectations; when she tells her son he must attend the dead child’s funeral, it’s not a request but a simple assertion of future events.
Barbu demonstrates little interest in fighting the mounting possibility of manslaughter charges, but the conflict between mother and son emerges from a more fundamental disconnect. We learn that Barbu’s despondence predates the accident; his relationship with his girlfriend is strained because he cannot stomach the idea of bringing a child into the world. The allegorical resonance – of a younger, post-communist generation looking on their ancestors with despair – is clear without being over-emphasised.
Child’s Pose is not an easy film to watch. The grim subject matter and atmosphere of hopelessness is partly responsible, but Netzer’s decision to film in Greengrass-esque handheld style creates a nauseous erraticism. It’s periodically effective: the aforementioned scene in the police station has dizzying immediacy, and the film’s final scenes – a meeting between Cornelia and the dead child’s parents – are uncomfortably but necessarily intimate. But it leaves much of the film feeling clumsy and airless, too often detracting from the potency of the screenplay and Gheorgiu’s tremendous performance.
This review was originally published at The 500 Club.