At first glance, Child’s Pose is making a political statement about the class divide present in modern day Romania. The narrative of a wealthy family trying to skirt its responsibilities to a poor family is heavily charged, and for much of the film’s first half, I expected to open this review with some statement about how wealth and connections in the modern age can literally let people get away with murder.
But then things changed. The class thing became less important, and the story became a whole lot more personal, because Child’s Pose isn’t really a film about how much power the wealthy hold over the poor. It’s about the depths of motherly love.
Or rather, motherly obsession.
Child’s Pose (Poziția Copilului)
Director: Călin Peter Netzer
Release Date: 2/18/2014 (Film Forum/NYC)
In its opening moments, Child’s Pose asks a bizarre question: Should a mother have total access to her son’s home? And while the question is certainly strange in and of itself, it’s part of a grander statement about parental desire for access after a child leaves home. Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu) is a wealthy, well-connected woman whose adult son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), has left her and doesn’t seem particularly keen on keeping in touch. But she feels like she has the right to bother him as much as she likes. She is his mother, after all.
So when Barbu kills a 14-year old child in a car accident (he was driving too fast and the kid ran across the freeway), Cornelia gets involved. He is going to go to prison for manslaughter unless his wealthy, well-connected mother can convince everyone involved to drop charges, and that’s her mission. Controlling Cornelia (“Controlia, her husband calls her) does everything: she shows up in her furs with the police commissioner on the line and gets her son to change his statement; she takes him to her house; she makes the calls and arrangements to meet with other parties in the case; she goes into his house uninvited and takes his things.
But here’s the thing: He’s sick of it.
Barbu only seems vaguely interested in not going to prison. He is clearly a weak man who has spent much of his life under his mother’s thumb, and now he’s finally had it. To the detriment of his potential freedom, he fights his mother and her access to him. He wants to handle things on his own, even though he definitely won’t. He wants Cornelia to leave him alone.
Child’s Pose plays out mostly as a series of long, occasionally tangential conversations. As with other films in the Romanian New Wave, it is slow and drawn out, but not in a bad way. Were it cut to the bare essentials, the film would be half its current length (if not shorter), but it doesn’t come off as excessive. Even when the film puts its story on hold for several minutes to show an opera that Cornelia is attending, it doesn’t feel like it’s too much. There were no subtitles for the song (and it was opera, so I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand it anyway), so I have no idea if there was any narrative significance to the lyrics, but it doesn’t matter. Even if they did, it could have definitely been truncated. But it wasn’t. It just goes on and on, and that’s fine, pacing be damned, because the singing was good.
Child’s Pose works because it is a series of scenes that are interesting in and of themselves, regardless of the greater narrative. Each conversation may be longer than it needs to be, with only a couple of important character details coming out of five minutes of dialogue, but they are worth following. They feel real, uncomfortably so at time, and that makes sticking around rewarding, even once you realize that there’s not going to be a clear resolution (again, Romanian New Wave).
Child’s Pose looks like a documentary. The quick, uncertain zooms that follow events as they unfold give a feeling that the camera is not some disembodied figure but an actual part of the world. But while it gives the film a vérité-feel, it also backfires and serves as a constant reminder that you’re watching fiction. It actually made me think of Richard Linklater’s Before films, where each cut shows that you’re seeing an alternate take of a prescribed story rather than another angle of a real experience. Each shot in Child’s Pose seems like a reaction, but it’s not. When the edit happens and there’s no other camera person following Cornelia, it’s jarring in a way that it isn’t with most movies.
But until the cut, it does serve to make the world feel more real, helped by some excellent performances, especially from Gheorghiu and Dumitrache. Despite the fact that Barbu is culpable for manslaughter and really should be punished, it’s hard not to feel bad for him and his situation. He is silent for much of the film, but you can see on his face what the accident has done to him.
And that’s where Child’s Pose‘s power really comes from. This slow, meandering thing shows real people, how they act and react, and in doing so it gets into your brain and makes you think about it. What would you do if you were in that situation? If you were Cornelia? Or Barbu? And that’s not a pleasant thought.