Set in a gilded, gaudy world of swanky dinner parties and opera engagements, the curiously titled Child's Pose peels away layer upon layer of bourgeoisie conceit found in the upper class of Romanian culture to reveal a core that's very much human. Welcome to a nub of human frailty, actually.
Luminita Gheorghiu, supporting actress in last year's spellbinding Beyond the Hills, stars as Cornelia, a middle-aged mother who abruptly finds out that her estranged, thirty-something son has been involved in a horrifying and fatal car accident, is in jail and will soon be facing life-crushing charges. What follows is a social drama punctuated with the less-than-heroic actions and confabulations from what's supposed to be the film's heroine: a strong, dauntless woman guided more by a Darwinian sense of survival than a moral code to do what's right.
It's all kept civil, however. In the hands of Romanian director Calin Peter Netzer, absent are the clichés that would riddle your average American production with an eagerness to show the depths to which the human soul can plunge. Sex and violence hold no currency here any more than they would in a real, three-dimensional woman's arsenal. Instead of being interested in reaching Shakespearean, Greek or Biblical heights of recklessness, Netzer opts for a more quiet approach that's not any less tragic. Arguably, the approach is even more devastating for its banality.
What Netzer's masculine-named anti-heroine does use is her influence. Not grand-scale influence to the point of asserting chess-like power moves (after all, she's just an architect) but in her ability to build concentric circles of doubt around anyone with the authority to cast her son in a dark light, whether that be the local doctor who's examining her son after the accident or the local police persons who are filling out the accident report. It's this sense of provinciality that, ironically, elevates the story from your run-of-the-mill potboiler to something resembling real life: Despite its bourgeoisie digressions, Child's Pose remains small-scaled throughout. It has no aspiration to speak on behalf of the human condition in general as much as to speak of one family's, and in particular, the matriarch's, disintegration. A morality play this ain't.
The other influence Cornelia holds is the one over her son, who seems to suffer from a severe case of affluenza, that topical disease that's been recently released into the American consciousness. Crass, a big effing loser and emotionally stunted, Barbu deeply resents his mother's manipulations yet does nothing to cut the umbilical cord. Like the yoga pose the literal translation of the film's title unwittingly references, he remains in a figurative fetal position, head buried in the ground, while hurling out such unrealistic nuggets as "Blow me!" to his mother.
However pleasurable it is to behold the tight focus of the overall narrative in Child's Pose, it is at this juncture between mother and son that the verisimilitude begins to crumble, if ever so slightly. Unfortunately, much like a run-of-the-mill potboiler production, the screenplay manifests itself out of nowhere, taking it a little too easy on our heroine's plight while making some of the proceedings kinda hard for the viewer to swallow. The character of Barbu turns out to be one-dimensional, barely written, used mostly to highlight Cornelia's possessiveness and craftiness. Fair enough. It's her story, despite the movie's title.
But when one of the police officers handling the case finds out Cornelia's profession and asks her to recommend someone to help him with a home construction problem, for that brief moment we may as well be back in Hollywoodland with its too convenient breaks. Fortunately, it's only a passing exchange, and to the credit of the filmmakers, never followed up in a future scene as that would be overkill to a smart audience.
It's rare in cinema to have a three-dimensional female protagonist, a middle-aged mother, no less, who stoops in the name of filial love, but who turns out unsympathetic in the process. 2011's Russian film Elena has a plot with many similarities to Child's Pose - hell, this review reminds me of my review of that film! - but, predictably, the audience never wavers from that other mother's side as Elena's only sin is a sense of misguided loyalty to her son. On the other hand, Cornelia's greater sin is a keen awareness of her every action for and against her son. This makes Cornelia a little too human. Or perhaps a little too evil.
Perhaps this is why the Academy passed on Child's Pose as a nominee for Best Foreign Film this year. It's not an easy movie to like to the point of potentially awarding it with an Oscar. And as we know, the Academy has a knack for shying away from material that's too complex, too human. Welcome to reality.
Child's Pose will open at the Nuart Theatre in LA on February 21.