by Matt Levine
The commanding films of the Romanian New Wave that have been populating festivals over the last decade are many things, often contradictorily: bitterly funny and utterly devastating, realistic and surreal, ultra-personal and socially engaged. Perhaps the children of the Ceausescu era, liberated from the censorship and political restraints of Romania’s Communist regime (which ruled until 1989), can only look back on their (and their country’s) past with acrid bemusement. The country's cinematic output since the early 2000s has taken varied forms, from the slow-burn absurdity of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) to the unbearably tense social commentaries of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007) and Beyond the Hills (2013) to the ambiguous police procedurals Police, Adjective (2009) and Aurora (2010). Yet they all share a subdued humanist strain, an attention to how political institutions and seemingly minute social constraints can have damning repercussions on individuals’ lives. Calin Peter Netzer’s Golden Bear-winning Child’s Pose returns to this familiar territory with its story of a domineering matriarch doing everything she can to clear her spoiled son of manslaughter charges after he runs over a young peasant boy (a crime of which he’s clearly guilty), although its grungy style and emotional turmoil are less convincing than in most of its New Wave brethren.
Film Society of Minneapolis-St. Paul (St. Anthony Main)
Director: Calin Peter Netzer
Producers: Calin Peter Netzer, Ada Solomon
Writer: Razvan Radulescu, Calin Peter Netzer
Cinematographer: Andrei Butica
Editor: Dana Bunescu
Cast: Luminita Gheorghiu, Bogdan Dumitrache, Natasa Raab, Ilinca Goia, Florin Zamfirescu, Vlad Ivanov, Mimi Branescu
Premiere: February 11, 2013 – Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 19, 2014
US Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Child’s Pose overlaps with the broader Romanian film industry in more than its thematic concerns: it was written by Razvan Radulescu (who also scripted The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Tuesday, After Christmas) and stars Luminita Gheorghiu, an esteemed Romanian actress who also appeared in Lazarescu, Beyond the Hills, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, among others. From the very first image, Child's Pose feels drearily familiar: we’re thrust in media res into a tense conversation between Cornelia (Gheorghiu), gingerly wielding a cigarette holder and commandeering the dialogue, and a wealthy family friend. Bedecked with fur coats and the luxurious décor of the upper-class, Cornelia and her friend have clearly benefited from Romania’s relatively recent transition to the global free market; the antagonism between upper and lower classes, a recurring theme in recent Romanian film, rears its volatile head again.
Cornelia is discussing her standoffish son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), who reaps the fruits of his parents’ financial assistance yet resents Cornelia for some unknown travesty in their family history. When Barbu is detained for killing a young boy on a rural freeway, Cornelia perversely sees this as an opportunity to prove her motherly love and reconnect with her clearly damaged offspring. She’s the kind of character who enters any scene with the conviction that she’s in control: whether it’s the financial power she has at her disposal or a naturally steely persona, Cornelia never doubts that she’ll be able to clear Barbu of his manslaughter charges. She storms into the police station and accuses two exasperated officers of brutality; before long, she’s forcing her son to change his statement, alleging that he was driving at 110 kph instead of 160 (roughly 65 mph rather than 100). Whether retrieving Barbu’s cell phone from his pulverized car or bribing a witness to change his testimony, Cornelia seemingly perceives Barbu's predicament as simply another situation to conquer. Even when she visits the family of the dead boy in a prolonged emotional climax, we’re initially unsure whether she’s attending his funeral to offer her condolences or to convince his parents to drop charges.
The ease with which Cornelia underhandedly manipulates the justice system, redacting testimonies and enlisting the help of her powerful lawyer friends, suggests a subversive commentary on the corruptibility of state institutions: systems of law and order are comprised of individuals who are clearly susceptible to coercion, throwing their validity into question from the start. Child’s Pose contains a wickedly satirical undercurrent which attacks the bureaucracy of the Romanian police, as investigators repeatedly dismiss Cornelia’s suggestions in fear of the massive amounts of paperwork they’ll have to do. Their main concern is victims’ and perpetrators’ all-important files, whose documentation must be flawless. At times, these early scenes of police inefficacy recall the bureaucratic double-speak in Béla Tarr’s Sátántángo (1994), wherein investigators completely alter what has come beforehand according to official jargon—the most dizzying (and Kafkaesque) depiction of inescapable red tape in the history of movies. In its emphasis on the never-ending rift between the rich and the poor (even if that gap is bridged slightly by the end of the film), Child’s Pose also condemns a modern society that views wealth as the all-important motivator—as evidenced by numerous characters’ suggestion that Cornelia pay for the peasant family’s funeral, or a heartless conversation between Cornelia and a witness to the accident that revolves around how much money he should be offered as a bribe (“what are three years of your son’s freedom worth?,” he asks).
Child’s Pose has ideas on its mind, clearly, but it often falters in trying to convey these subversive themes. The strain of bureaucratic satire vanishes entirely by the film’s halfway point, and the depiction of class antagonism is about as simplistic as can be: of course a brutish male relative of the dead child will scream violently at Cornelia when she arrives at the police station, though the rest of the boy’s family are hardly given an opportunity to express themselves. The fascinating depiction in the Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) of wealthy urban officials clashing with more traditional rural communities is nowhere to be found in Child’s Pose, which strives for sociopolitical commentary but rarely attempts to burrow beneath the surface of those issues.
Unfortunately, the movie is just as weak in developing emotional pathos. Why does Barbu detest his mother so venomously? What secret from their past continues to plague them? Child’s Pose opts for a tricky technique, ambiguously circling around this secret yet never divulging it fully. There are strong intimations of incest and a compelling scene in which Barbu demands that she never call him again, but the characters remain unapproachable despite isolated moments of intrigue. Similarly, a candid conversation between Cornelia and Barbu’s long-suffering lover, Carmen (Ilinca Goia), sheds some insight into Barbu’s extremely warped sexuality (which is closely related to his paranoid fear of bacteria), but these are revelations into a character we hardly care about. Barbu is both spoiled and resentful—he “wants something but acts like he doesn’t,” says one character—which is precisely the point, although he is made into such an insufferably sniveling figure that his undisclosed traumas are almost completely unengaging.
One insurmountable problem is the movie's overwhelming humorlessness; Child’s Pose operates at a singularly dour, heavy wavelength, failing to incorporate the moments of levity or absurdity that define the human experience (even at its most grueling). As bleak as many films of the Romanian New Wave can be, they offer glimmers of recognizable human frailty or ridiculousness that resemble the sad humor of real life, especially in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08, East of Bucharest (2006). But this film’s director, Calin Peter Netzer (who has made two previous features, both unreleased in the States), is so adamant about making a bristling drama that he fails to provide us with even a momentary reprieve from the gloom.
A greater problem, though, might be the film’s indulgence in simplistic dramatic cliché: while certain aspects embrace ambiguity, others are all too willing to give in to easy affectation. Of course Cornelia’s bourgeois friends debate the merits of Orhan Pamuk and pontificate over national health care; of course Cornelia’s husband is a weak-minded supplicant in her hands (which might have been interesting had the movie expounded upon his character). While a confrontation between Cornelia and the parents of the dead boy is initially powerful, the film doesn’t know how to quit while it’s ahead: the scene devolves into maudlin sentimentality, with Cornelia gushing about Barbu’s early years as a figure skater and the dead boy’s mother claiming that her son, shortly before his death, had sent her a text reading, “Mother, look, I finished classes!” (It’s like the arthouse-drama equivalent of a buddy-cop sidekick enthusing about his impending retirement—right before he’s mercilessly gunned down.) Child’s Pose makes a show of embracing subtlety but disregards it when it really matters most—an ironic pitfall for a national cinema that’s known for its subdued complexity.
The film’s visual style also plays an important role in this impression of redundancy: with a restless handheld camera perpetually zooming and jerking through the frame, Child’s Pose will have you craving for any kind of well-framed composition by the end. The handheld fly-on-the-wall effect is dangerous: if it’s done well, as in the quietly thrilling 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the audience senses vérité actuality even though the frame is carefully maintained, showing us exactly what we need to see when we need to; if it’s done poorly, as in Child’s Pose, the camera randomly flits through the scene, lazily using its messiness as a bid for “urgency” and an excuse for disregarding the importance of visual composition. There are numerous instances in the film when a confrontation could be made more compelling by a static perspective or a well-timed pan, but the hyperactive camera fails to provide them.
To be clear, the shortcomings of Child’s Pose have nothing to do with Luminita Gheorghiu or most of the cast; if the film is compelling at times, it’s because of the fleeting emotions registered by the characters, a minute facial expression or transient gesture. The film is essentially a strongly focused character study, and Gheorghiu’s performance is at least able to sustain audience interest to the end (though that engagement ultimately goes unfulfilled). But if it’s intense characterization and thought-provoking subtext you’re looking for, you have at least a half-dozen preferable options in the Romanian New Wave alone. The fact that Child’s Pose was awarded Best Film at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival may partially constitute a tribute to recent Romanian cinema in general; judged on the merits of the film itself, such a lofty commendation is somewhat mystifying.