Child’s Pose, last year’s winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin, begins with two elegantly dressed middle-aged women sitting smoking, as one of them complains about being mistreated by the rebellious man in her life. We think she’s talking about a lover: he’s behaving brutishly and neglecting her for some other woman, who’s exerting undue control over him. But it soon emerges that the woman is talking about her son.
Throughout the film, protagonist Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu) displays a quasi-incestuous jealousy over her adult son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache). It shows when she leans over his naked back as she massages his bruises just a touch too tenderly. In another scene, no less creepy but quietly comic, Cornelia has let herself into the flat that Barbu shares with girlfriend Carmen (Ilinca Goia) to pick up some of his things. Carmen is outside, trying to get her key to work, but Cornelia is damned if she’s going to let her in. There’s a lovely, sly touch in this scene: Cornelia scours the bookshelves and finds two books which she packs for Barbu. Thanks to an earlier discussion, we know what they are: novels which Cornelia has given her boy. She knows he’s never touched them, but now, with Barbu pretty decisively at her mercy, he’ll be lucky to get out of it.
A couple of the names involved in Child’s Pose will be familiar: prominent Romanian actress Gheorghiu, who had roles in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and writer Razvan Radulescu, known for Lazarescu and Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas, who co-scripted Child’s Pose with director Calin Peter Netzer. The story might have been treated purely as a family melodrama—there’s certainly enough material in the triangle between Cornelia, Barbu, and Carmen, with Cornelia’s husband Aurelian (Florin Zamfirescu) watching wearily from the sidelines. In fact, there’s a more heated line of drama at work, which gives the film a social dimension. Cornelia comes from a privileged, wealthy background: she’s seen early on at her birthday party, champagne flowing, then attending an opera rehearsal; she drives a BMW, and she and her friend Olga (Natasa Raab) like furs as daily casual-wear. One day, the news comes that Barbu has been involved in a traffic accident: he has run over and killed a teenage boy and now faces manslaughter charges. Seemingly bypassing the stages of grief and horror, Cornelia’s instinct to deal with her son’s problem promptly kicks in. She walks into the police station where Barbu has been giving a statement and takes control, announcing that she’s “well-informed” and telling the police to wait their turn to talk. Striding in while still talking on her cell-phone, she doesn’t even greet the unprepossessing bearded man sitting sullenly at the desk; it’s only apparent to us after a while that this is the apple of her eye, the one all the fuss is about.
Child’s Pose is about entitlement, in various forms. Not only does Cornelia, as Barbu’s mother, feel that she essentially owns him and has the right to control his life, she also believes that it’s the prerogative of privileged, well-connected people to manipulate the law as they see fit. Quite brazenly, in front of the police officers, Cornelia tells Barbu to lower the speed that he’s admitted to driving at in his statement. Later, she tries to persuade the other driver in the case to amend his own statement in Barbu’s favor. The man is played by the most recognizable face in Romanian cinema—Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist in 4 Months and the commander in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective—and it’s a wonderfully slimy cameo, as he counters Cornelia with his own bargaining tactics.
The suggestion is that people like Cornelia always get their way, because they know their power, and they’re convinced that they cannot be anything other than good people—cannot possibly be responsible for the harm they cause. There’s talk early on about a doctor messing up a operation on a man’s penis, but it wasn’t really his fault—he didn’t mean to do any harm. That refrain recurs throughout: if you don’t see yourself as meaning harm, then that’s surely good enough. It’s certainly good enough in a corrupt system. The policeman presiding over Barbu’s case wastes no time in suggesting that Cornelia use her connections to help out some friends of his who are having house problems—pro bono, is the insinuation.
The film is a panorama of social and emotional inappropriateness. Barbu, a pampered brat through and through, throws a fit when Cornelia doesn’t bring him exactly the nasal drops he’s told her to get, and later seems to forget about the car accident entirely, instead sitting Cornelia down to give her a sort of lover’s ultimatum about the state of their relationship. And she forges a spiky temporary truce with his girlfriend, during which Carmen spills out more about her sexual relationship with Barbu than a mother should ever expect to hear.
In the final sequence, Cornelia, Barbu, and Carmen drive to the dead boy’s house, but Barbu refuses to come in because he can’t face it. As usual, he expects his mother to take charge of everything, and she’s in her element doing just that. Cornelia sits down with the grief-stricken parents—villagers without money or contacts, who therefore can’t possibly count. She begins by paying lip service to their tragedy, but it’s not long before she launches into a monologue about how it feels for her, hymning Babu’s achievements, the beautiful body he had as a boy, the French poetry he learned by heart, not forgetting “two years of figure skating.” It’s as if she’s mourning the golden boy who would be lost if the other parents insist on legal retribution, but she’s also boasting of her prize possession, implicitly daring the others to admit that their own dead son could never compete.
Child’s Pose treads a delicate line between social horror and comedy—so much so that, as with Lazarescu, it’s not always immediately apparent that the comedy is present. It shows us an aspect of Romanian society that we haven’t much seen before—concentrating on the wealthy and powerful, and showing how they edge the rest of the population out of the picture. This comes across quite literally when Cornelia goes to see the bereaved couple: they barely get a look in before Andrei Butica’s anxiously darting handheld camera comes back to hold on their visitor.
Gheorghiu is altogether a disturbing presence playing someone who seems to have no emotional self-awareness yet is entirely conscious of her powers as a social performer, someone who can always play the right part in the right key to get what she wants. Even when Cornelia’s armor is off while sitting down with the other parents—she’s without makeup, and has ditched the furs in which she usually goes into battle—her haggard, tear-streaked features are another theatrical disguise. This is the tragedienne playing it “real.”
The film’s title seems utterly mysterious, and doesn’t really work in English. But Netzer has explained that it refers to a fetal position in yoga, relating to a scene that was dropped; it also implies the position of the dead child found in the road (there’s some wordplay involved, apparently) as well as the infantile stance that Barbu adopts throughout. In the very last shot, however, he seems to face up to adulthood, getting out of the car and speaking to the grieving father; in a stroke of understatement that’s very characteristic of Romanian cinema, we don’t hear a word that’s said. But to get out of the car, of course, Barbu must first ask his mother to release the child lock.