Feb 21, 2014

Child's Pose

This engrossing and bitterly entertaining Romanian film (winner of the Golden Bear at last year's Berlinale) by Calin Peter Netzer  is the farthest thing from the yoga pose suggested by its title.
It is a nerve-wracking excursion into the soul of a possessive, controlling, manipulative mother, played by the extraordinary Luminita Gheorghiu, and the fallout of her all consuming motherly love for her only son. Cornelia is a wealthy Romanian woman, an architect, who lives a life of privilege in Bucharest. She is a wannabe sophisticate. Her ringtone is ostentatiously Bach, she has artistic friends, and as a successful professional woman in a fucked up country, she bears her entitlement regally. We get to meet her as we listen in on a conversation in which she complains  about her son's estrangement from her. He won't invite her over, he's with "that woman", he won't read the books she gives him, etc. Her sister counsels her to stop meddling. Evidently, this is impossible. This is a woman so controlling, her own wimpy husband calls her Controlia. Then her son is involved in a car accident and she reacts like a one-woman SWAT team ready to rescue him.
To hear her speak of her son, you'd think he was a young, clueless teen: the "poor boy", her "baby". So it comes as a shock when we first see him at the police station, a fully grown man, looking spineless. Cornelia barges in, without even blinking at the grieving family of the victim, and having placed some strategic calls to friends in high places, starts conducting the intricate operation to save her boy from prosecution. She's from the city, these are the outskirts, and the police seem to know the drill. They try to conduct a proper investigation, but influence has been wielded, as inexorably as the march of time, to judge from the looks of the officers' weary faces. Anybody who comes from a country where corruption is the oil that greases society's wheels will recognize with a chill the inevitability of Cornelia's efforts; the despairing certitude of impunity. 
Child's Pose is the story of a mother who has alienated and emasculated her son by loving him too much. It is also about power and influence, in a personal sphere and in the bigger scheme of things. Cornelia's tactics are reminiscent of the secret police in a tyrannical regime. She uses the help as informants, sneaks into the son's house and rifles through his things, decides everyone's fate without batting an eye. Nothing fazes her. She is unmoved by people begging her to stop. It is her duty as a mother to save her son. She goes through whatever she has to do: paying off witnesses, finding a friendly doctor to conduct the police lab tests, trying to get a sympathetic court expert, cheating the law with ruthless efficiency; with hauteur, even. She acts without the slightest sense of compunction. Worse, she shows no trace of empathy for the bereaved family and their unspeakable tragedy. She only feels for her son.
All the actors are fantastic, but Gheorghiu happens to be one of the greatest actresses alive today. Without a shred of self-indulgence, she embodies a woman for whom it is natural to be in the right all the time. She acts by conviction, not emotion, which is why her performance is so powerful. This makes Cornelia hateful but understandable. Cornelia is purposefully oblivious to her own toxicity, because it comes, in theory, from a good place. It comes from love. Gheorghiu underplays her manipulations to such extent that she is both an object of revulsion and pity. She is a fascinating anti-hero. Now compare this master class in performing a mother from hell with Meryl Streep's garish carnival of emotion in August: Osage County. Gheorghiu doesn't pander and she doesn't reach; she doesn't play for laughs, even though the character would seem to beg it. She doesn't insult the audience with cheap emotion. She understands to her steely core Cornelia's totalitarian devotion.
Cornelia schemes and orchestrates without the slightest ruffle in her cap, but then she has to start confronting the consequences of her own meddling. This movie has some bitter ironies in store for her, even though she refuses to accept them. Carmen, her daughter in law, punishes Cornelia by granting one of her most fervent desires: the wish to know everything about her son. I was amazed by Carmen's composure during the course of their devastating conversation. I would have thrown Cornelia out of the house by the hair, but Carmen knows better. She gets her where it hurts.
Then her son obliterates her with a simple request that, for a controlling person, has got to be the ninth circle of hell: "Don't call me. Let me call you".
Cornelia soldiers on, apparently undiminished. We wonder when, if ever, is she going to change (her son has prophesied never). She finally reaches a catharsis, within which she is still calculating to the very end. You hate her, but you have to admire her. You have to pity her. She is to blame, but who could blame her?  

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