Seeing a way to reassert control over her adult son’s life when he runs over and kills a child, an affluent Romanian woman sets out on a campaign of emotional and social manipulation to keep him out of prison, navigating the waters of power, corruption and influence.
Mommie Dearest by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
This tense family drama takes off into the emotional stratosphere with the extraordinary performance of Luminita Gheorghiu as a manipulative mother determined to control her adult son’s life. In the process, it nails all its characters in a scathing picture of present-day Romanian society. Shot with constantly moving, active hand-held cameras in almost a Dogme 95 documentary style and lit like a nightmare – a sense of urgency pervades Child’s Pose.
Bleached-blonde Cornelia (Gheorghiu) and her successful but henpecked husband Domnul (Florin Zamfirescu) are well-heeled members of the Romanian privileged classes. Elegantly dressed, she celebrates her 60th birthday at a party where dignitaries discuss medical malpractice and architectural mistakes. Corruption is taken for granted. In an opening conversation that swiftly and economically sets up the characters and their relationships, Cornelia complains at length to her pragmatic sister (Natasa Raab) about the lack of respect her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) shows her. He never contacts her, he lives with a girlfriend she doesn’t approve of, who is taking advantage of him because she has a child, he never contacts her… Until they are interrrupted by a phone call and the need to arrange a bribe for a doctor, something they take as the norm.
Another phone call interrupts Cornelia at the opera. In a tragic accident, Barbu has run over and killed a 14-year-old boy on the highway. If convicted of manslaughter, he could be sentenced to from three to fifteen years in prison. Immediately, Cornelia goes into damage-limitation overdrive, wasting no sympathy on the boy or his bereaved family. In their ostentatiously capacious fur coats, she and her sister descend on the police station where Barbu is held. She bullies and threatens the officers, mobilising her influential connections, and in a most extraordinary way takes over the interview and, steamrollering the police, forces Barbu to change his statement to make it appear he was driving within the speed limit. In the end, even the initially incorruptible police chief can’t resist the temptation to lobby Cornelia for her architectural contacts so he can circumvent planning regulations.
Taking advantage of his girlfriend’s absence, she brings a weak and unwilling Barbu back home with her, to be looked after, seizing her chance to make a takeover bid for his life. In meeting after amazing meeting, she manipulates anyone she thinks can help her get her son off the hook. A wily witness (Vlad Ivanov) needs to be bribed to change his statement. Meeting him in a mall, she finds his matter-of-fact financial calculations set the value of his cooperation at a sum huge enough to take even her temporarily aback. Her son’s girlfriend Carmen (Ilinca Goia), who appears perfectly nice and normal, contradicting Cornelia’s prejudice, also surprises her by revealing intimate details of his sexual problems, making it clear the object of their joint affections – two women, strong in their different ways – is an unworthy coward who is unable to commit: she becomes Cornelia’s unexpected ally and sidekick in his salvation project. Cornelia’s passive son summons up the energy to try and make a break with her – a hard character journey for an actor as his part is somewhat underwritten – but she’s undeterred, forcing him to cooperate in a strategy of visiting the dead boy’s parents and apologising, attending the funeral – and, since they are a poor family, also paying for it. Financially if not legally.
And in an extraordinary final scene as she visits the grief-stricken house of the boy’s parents, Cornelia, in a sophisticated manipulative monologue lasting more than fifteen minutes, in which she tries to win over the traumatised but honourable parents, apparently grieves, empathasises, pleads, applies psychological and then financial pressure. Gheorghiu is a consummate actress playing a woman who is also a consummate actress. Although Cornelia is able to summon tears to get her way, we can also see in the briefest of flashes an expression of watchfulness pass over her face as she checks how the parents are reacting to her, so subtle that it’s almost ambiguous. When her son’s own – we assume genuine – apology finally comes, he insists she lets him out of the car – “Unlock me” he demands symbolically – and all she can do is watch as, framed by her rear-view mirror, he and the father shake hands in the distance.
Gheorghiu is best-known to international viewers as the beleaguered ambulance nurse in The Death of Mr Lazarescu. She also was seen more recently in Beyond the Hills. Both Gheorghiu and Vlad Ivanoc (as the abortionist) both appeared in the abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In Child’s Pose it’s unresolved as to whether she is a calculating heroine or a martyr – because for all the superhuman efforts she puts into her son’s rescue, it’s not clear what she is allowed to get out of it emotionally, since he apparently rejects her. Or does she win him back in the end? Nevertheless, it’s an acting tour de force and she carries the film in a terrifying portrayal of both obsessive mother-love and also the symbolic privilege of her position – the power to bend poor and unlucky people in a corrupt society to the wishes of a moneyed elite. The Romanian new wave has never been more involving or more illuminating.
Director and scriptwriter Calin Peter Netzer’s drama won the prestigious Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival and continued to receive praise at the London Film Festival. He says he and his co-scriptwriter wanted to discuss their relationships with their mothers: “We didn’t want to offer judgement. It is about a pathological, Freudian story, where nobody is the victim or the bad guy, negative or positive.” Many of the films coming out of Romania concern the working class or lower middle-classes, and he felt it was important to show this aspect of society, the Romanian upper middle class, a fascinating social arena.
Child’s Pose is released on 1st November 2013 in the UK