There’s a certain trend in film criticism to jump to label any compatriots making impressive films a ‘New Wave’ – Wikipedia’s category for ‘New Wave in Cinema’ lists no less than 12 countries and there are critics who would make the case for many more. But whether filmmakers in Romania can be tied together with an overarching aesthetic and ideology or there’s just something in the water there, it can’t be denied that Romania has produced some impressive new directors and films – most notably Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu – over the last decade or so. Calin Peter Netzer is the newest name to make waves with the release of his third film, which despite doing the festival rounds last year after a Golden Bear win in 2013 and a subsequent Sydney Film Festival showing is only just reaching cinemas here now; an unfortunate fate that a lot of foreign films face, arriving on Australian shores with already fully formed critical reputations and waning buzz. It’s an interesting film that irritates technically, but succeeds on the basis of its smart script and phenomenal performances that generally impresses even as large parts of the film do feel familiar.
The plot follows an overly protective mother who will stop at nothing to protect her son, whether he likes it or not. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – this dynamic has been used endlessly through cinema in films as varying in respectability and genre as Psycho and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, though the world cinema fan will see Bong Joon-ho’s Mother as the most obvious reference point. Reviewers have (not in error) focused on this aspect of the film – the mother’s obsessive and possessive nature (it almost feels uncomfortable to call it ‘love’) is expertly conveyed, only obliquely hinting at past trauma and possible incestuous vibes – but the film is interested in something further and more in tune with the context of society more generally; of the connection between family and love in a class context and in promoting otherness.
To expand further on the plot, mother Cornelia’s (Luminta Gheorghiu) bourgeois routine of disinterested patronage of the arts and gossip about her estranged son’s partner is interrupted with the news that the son (Bogdan Dumitrache) has been called into a police station having caused the death of a young boy in a car accident. Cornelia sees this primarily as an opportunity to re-enter her son’s life and more crucially, re-assert control over it in a mix of genuine protective urges and spite, and her efforts to do this provide much of the film’s narrative sparks. But crucially the deceased’s family, unlike Cornelia’s, are of working class, a tension that unfolds from the first scene where Cornelia comes to the police station in an expensive fur coat (in one of the few instances of the film’s visual ingenuity, Cornelia is almost always presented outwardly projecting a guarded vulnerability), contrasted with the uncle’s tracksuits and police uniform, and is then visibly given preferential treatment. These attitudes carry through the film, of the visible breaks and advantages available to them, mostly available through money at her disposal. Chillingly Cornelia doesn’t show signs of genuine remorse or sadness for the victim – some may read some of the final scenes differently, but her variety of emotions and responses come from the concerns about ramifications for her own son awaiting charges – the accident wasn’t a human tragedy in the eyes of her family, it was an inconvenience. Furthermore, in her continual attempts at reconciliation with the affected family (with pragmatic goals – to avoid charges being laid) all she can offer is money – attempts to commoditise the grief and suffering of the other, a party that her own perspective cannot allow her to empathise with.
Despite being the aggrieved party, through the inherent power imbalance in the interaction we and she know that the deceased family will be hard pressed to turn down her offer. Which brings us into the ethical quagmire reminiscent of a number of recent works – Michael Haneke’s Hidden, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and the novel and television adaptation of The Slap – all regarding scenarios where privilege and class complicate legal and ethical issues arising out of a clear wrong doer and victim. Traditionally cinema would shoot these stories from the victim’s perspective – the aggrieved, downtrodden and underprivileged, but the reversing of perspective is so fascinating and forces us to question our own relationship to these characters and to the medium. The late Roger Ebert called cinema the great empathy making machine, and so in Child’s Pose empathy is borne out of perspective – suddenly we find the son’s legal troubles frustrating, and we root for Cornelia’s attempts at throwing money at people to make the problems go away. We have to consciously try and sympathise with the other, and only in hindsight do we realise how grossly duped we’ve been.
The film is clearly an interesting exercise thematically, but as I’ve hinted at it’s not executed seamlessly. It has the type of cinematography that Lars von Trier detractors complain about, but worse. It’s not just shaky and jolty, but arbitrarily so – sometimes this works by accident, and we might get a sort of immersive point of view perspective during a tense dialogue sequence, but more often than not it doesn’t, at worst it will make an egregious break of the 180° rule mid-conversation, breaking spatial continuity and confusing the viewer, who in turn might miss a line of dialogue and this style of shooting just generally call attention to itself. It also doesn’t really utilise the 2.35 aspect ratio on offer and seems to be part of the unfortunate trend of using the widescreen ratio as a mark of prestige rather than as an appropriate tool for the story at hand. If it wasn’t for the script and acting, the project would look amateurish. Luckily those other factors are top notch, including an incredible performance by Gheorghiu – tightly controlled, multi-faceted but also understated, in a scenario and role that could easily have descended into histrionics. It’s an interesting film – perhaps more a variation on a theme than anything groundbreaking, but one I feel well worth your time.
Around the Staff: