By Daniel Barnes
Like Le Week-End, Calin Peter Netzer’s raw family drama Child’s Pose is a slave to its stylistic influences, only here we are awash in the handheld signifiers of cinematic verisimilitude. And like Le Week-End director Roger Michell, Romanian filmmaker Calin Peter Netzer is overly studied and somewhat formulaic in his use of the style, and all of Netzer’s random zooms, long takes, arrhythmic editing, and nearly epilepic mise-en-scene add up to very little.
Unlike Le Week-end, which is all primps and poses, the naturalism of Child’s Pose works in service of a strong story stocked with multi-layered characters. Luminita Gheorghiu (she has been in nearly every Romanian film released in America in the last decade, including The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, and Beyond the Hills) is fantastic as Cornelia, a nicotine-stained and Cointreau-soaked study in the blurred line between mothering and manipulation.
When we first see Cornelia, she is complaining to a friend about her distant and combative son Barbu, and openly regrets that she has been forced to cede control of his life to another woman. He refuses to attend her 60th birthday party, yet she makes glowing excuses for him, and dances wildly in front of her guests to fool them into thinking she doesn’t care. After Barbu is arrested for running over a teenage boy, Cornelia immediately leaps into protective mother mode (“They’re like hyenas ganging up on my baby,” she says of the arresting officers), but there is a sense that she has merely sniffed out an opportunity to reinsert herself into his life.
That ambivalence is at the heart of Child’s Pose – we know that Cornelia is a brazen manipulator (she even orders Barbu to alter his statement in front of the lead detective), but we are never sure if she is devious or just meddling. This pays off beautifully in a duet of scenes regarding Cornelia and her son’s mutual housekeeper – Cornelia urges the housekeeper to snoop on her son early in the film, and later Barbu’s girlfriend casually mentions that they fired her for “being indiscreet”. Cornelia does not even blink.
There are times when Cornelia seems as calculating as Jacki Weaver’s “Smurf” from Animal Kingdom, and at other times she comes off as thoughtless and possibly clueless. Netzer also suggests that there may be something sexual in Cornelia’s fixation on the miserable and surly Barbu, especially in the scene where she preps herself in the mirror before sensually rubbing down his injured back. All of that ambivalent manipulation makes Child’s Pose a slow build, but it leads to a gut-wrenching, roughly 20-minute climactic sequence in which Gheorghiu is forced to walk a razor’s edge between treacherous guile and a genuine outpouring of emotion and regret.
Her remarkable ability to walk that line is the best reason to go see Child’s Pose.
OPENS TODAY AT THE LANDMARK OPERA PLAZA IN SAN FRANCISCO AND THE LANDMARK SHATTUCK IN BERKELEY.