Monday, February 24, 2014

Film Review: Călin Peter Netzer's Child's Pose (2013)


Mommie Dearest
By Jordan Cronk 

Child’s Pose opens mid-conversation as a mother discusses her son’s personal life with another middle-aged woman sitting next to her in an anonymous room. The setting seems muted, the surroundings drab and not very homey—all in all not an unfamiliar setup for a contemporary Romanian film. The texture and shooting of the scene, however, are rather jarring. Many may have come to expect a certain austerity in cinema from this part of the world, but shot handheld on grainy film stock and with restless use of a zoom lens, the discussion between these women has a documentary-like immediacy, pulling from close-ups to cramped two-shots as the noticeably vexed mother airs concerns over her son’s continued disrespect toward her, as well as with his girlfriend’s headstrong attitude. After a decade-long renaissance in Romanian filmmaking, where a sense of compositional determinism and an exacting formalism have become acknowledged aesthetic hallmarks, could this national cinema finally be looking for new ways of expressing itself?

On evidence of the country’s recent output, the answer is a definitive yes, though not necessarily in ways its established style would suggest. Where figureheads such as Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu have taken to experimenting with theatrically derived improv and meta/political/familial portraiture (with their respective latest, Three Interpretation Exercises and The Second Game), others remain more traditionally minded. Child’s Pose falls more in line with the latter mentality. Truth be told, it does a disservice to the film, its promising director Călin Peter Netzer, and his pioneering contemporaries to view Child’s Pose through its loose association with some critically defined “new wave.” More so than even Cristian Mungiu, Netzer appears to be the most narratively inclined of these otherwise contrasting filmmakers, and after picking up a handful of awards along the festival circuit, Child’s Pose is poised to become the most high profile Romanian film released in the United States since 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Unfortunately, this attention to straightforward, mostly humor-deprived storytelling often sits uneasily with Netzer’s realist inclinations; while calling to mind some of the country’s initial 21st-century output, his style occasionally strains to bolster the gravity of the narrative.

To a certain extent, the differences in methodology are embodied by the actions of Child’s Pose’s protagonist, Cornelia (Luminița Gheorghiu), the mother and matriarch of a family left reeling by the impending trial of her only son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), who has accidentally run over a 14-year-old boy with his car. Bullheaded, domineering, and manipulative, Cornelia—whom her husband, Dinu (Florin Zamfirescu), appropriately refers to at one point as “Controlelia”—has seemingly smothered her son to the point of resentment, if not outright hatred. When informed of the deadly accident, Cornelia, sensing a chance at reconciliation, goes into maternal defense mode, advising against confession or even police cooperation in hopes of facilitating outside arrangements, which involve everything from groveling at the feet of the grieving family to bribing eye witnesses. It quickly becomes clear that the distrust she feels for Barbu’s girlfriend, Carmen (Ilinca Goia), is partly attributable to her potential for symbolically replacing Cornelia as a mother figure and partly because she recognizes so much of herself in Carmen. You can sense their constant disappointment in Barbu for submitting to one or the other so meekly (incidentally a criticism also lobbied at Dinu by multiple parties), but it is Carmen’s apparent refusal to have Barbu’s baby that is, unsurprisingly, a main bone of contention for Cornelia, who has dedicated her life to her child, for better or for worse.

With a drive similar to his protagonist, Netzer constructs his film with a confidence bordering on the oppressive. The handheld camerawork by Andrei Butică (a cinematographer on Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) is fidgety and intrusive, probing the characters to explicate their intentions, which one senses they would anyway with just the slightest hint of pressure. Zooming in an out at random, though still in mostly tight framing, Netzer never fully establishes a defined sense of space, not to mention place; Cornelia’s gaudy furs and regal suits betray an upper-class existence, but aside from a pivotal scene set around a dining-room table amidst lavish, bourgeois living quarters, there’s little to differentiate the film’s various interiors (to wit, only at this moment does the aforementioned opening scene reveal itself as quite possibly the same location). It would seem Netzer and co-screenwriter Răzvan Rădulescu (also cowriter of Lazarescu, as well as Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas) would rather we focus our full attention on their esteemed ensemble’s carefully modulated characterizations. Gheorghiu in particular, overbearing and at times downright evil (“You’re not the most beautiful woman,” she tells Carmen by way of backhanded compliment), is appropriately steely-eyed and intractable in a performance that nonetheless threatens to overpower the narrative at times.

A more important narrative, however, is transpiring in the shadow of Cornelia’s single-minded attempts at damage control. Pent-up emotion does eventually get the best of Cornelia, and she reveals a glint of humanity in a dramatic gesture late in the film, but it is sometimes more rewarding to follow the subtle psychological arc of Barbu, who for the first hour of the film barely utters a word, content to concede to his mother’s demands (he even literally sits in the backseat of her car in one sequence) while mumbling in distress at his potentially dire prospects. But at a handful of key intervals we witness Barbu unleash his suppressed anger, confirming that there is indeed more to his silence than initially presumed. One might argue that in foregoing ambiguity in favor of narrative cohesion—the specifics behind Barbu’s demeanor and Carmen’s reluctance to have his child are eventually and explicitly laid out, while at another point a witness literally diagrams the events surrounding the car accident—the film’s confined aesthetic coordinates are essentially constricted to an even greater degree. But to Netzer and Rădulescu’s credit that doesn’t take away from the cumulative emotional impact of the film. Despite Barbu’s otherwise passive gestures, he makes a final decision that not only solidifies his maturation but also goes a long way toward reconciling the psychological temperaments of both himself and the victims of his mistake. And in one decisive, devastating moment, this boy becomes a man. [RS]

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