Ah, the Romanians — sometimes it seems like no one else is bothering to make movies for grown-ups anymore. Those of us with an abiding New Wave-y interest in human warts and tragic truth-telling have known, since 2005’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, to look to the Carpathians for dependable relief from the contemporary movie dosage of forever-teen faces and digitized pseudo-excitement. With Child’s Pose, the Romanian tide enters its Cassavetes phase, where the thin ice of haute bourgeoisie life cracks and opens wide.
Classically, we’ve got a character study under pressure, with R-wave earth goddess Luminita Gheorghiu at its center. Her Cornelia is a retired Bucharest architect/über-mom, aging into a moneyed loneliness with an ineffectual husband and a single grown son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), who hates her. She gripes self-pityingly about Barbu to her equally self-indulgent sister (Natasa Raab) at the outset, but only eventually do we form a picture of the family and the relationship: Self-directed and passive-aggressive, Cornelia is a Black Hawk of a helicopter mom, and Barbu, a surly infant of a man lost in his thirties, is trapped in her shadow.
The boom is lowered early, when Cornelia is summoned from an avant-garde opera recital’s audience — Barbu, as yet unseen, has had a car accident out in the burgs, and killed a small boy.
Director Calin Peter Netzer launches into a new kind of detailed legal proceduralism, as a fur-adorned Cornelia calmly insinuates herself into the police station and struggles to save her “poor boy” from any culpability, down to questioning the witness reports, monitoring the blood tests, and seeking to perhaps bribe the forensics experts examining the car. Snapped into quiet overdrive, Cornelia therein attempts to remother her son, keeping him at her swanky flat, dosing him with antianxietals, even giving him a quasi-incestuous massage.
Barbu, who has a live-in girlfriend Cornelia resents, glowers in a shocky funk throughout the blitz of fussy mothering — until he explodes with ire fit for a Eugene O’Neill play. As the minutiae of manipulating the law are pursued by this tunnel-visioned diva, the story twists up several secrets, all disrupting Cornelia’s presumptions about the modern world, her son’s life, and the vast class chasm that separates her from the poverty of the dead child’s village. Barbu, we discover, isn’t as simple as Cornelia assumed, as the two of them, accompanied by the unhappy girlfriend (the brilliant Ilinca Goia), head into the outlands to offer condolences to, and beg legal forgiveness from, the grieving parents.
Visually, Child’s Pose is no-nonsense, even perfunctory. Netzer keeps faith with his countrymen’s gritty aesthetic, which remains pure in the spirit of New Wave neo-realism; somehow, international success has not made the Romanians crave CGI or encouraged them to pander to hipness. The film does not reek of inexorable grimness like Lazarescu or moral qualm like Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, but the details are potent, almost all of them belonging to Cornelia — the retro-’60s “cool” outfits, the perpetual ultra-slim cigarette, the way she snoops around her son’s empty apartment, packing him pajamas but also taking stock of the pharmaceuticals and birth control. (This is a woman who, when she slams booze in misery, goes for the Grand Marnier.)
Cornelia is no caricature — she sometimes possesses unerring self-certainty, while her public confrontation with the bribably slimy accident witness, played by Vlad Ivanov (the abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), is an uneasy dance between control-freak confidence and over-her-head desperation. The climactic Cornelia challenge — in that threadbare farmhouse, at the family table of a near-penniless “average” Romanian, wracked with tears — is a deft and unpredictable acting tour de force. Simply put, Gheorghiu, with vivid and perfectly judged performances in a half-dozen masterpieces or more (including two Michael Hanekes), may be the best actress of her fading generation, and here the entire film depends upon her restraint and nuanced interiority in what could’ve been a Bette Midler meltdown.
You’ve seen this woman, impatient at store counters and over-youthfully dressed at receptions, and as a piece of old-school cine-anthropology, Child’s Pose captures a cultural moment in amber. It doesn’t quite scorch as several Romanian films have before it — figuratively speaking, the wounded aren’t shot as they were in, say, Lazarescu or 4 Months — but with its unblinking focus, Iranian-style wham-cut-to-black ending, and respect for its four-dimensional people, Netzer’s movie is a mesmerizing draught of chilled reality.