By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 8, 2014)
I’m sure you recall the “affluenza” case in Texas, in which a 16 year-old from a wealthy family received 10 year’s probation and a stint in rehab as “punishment” for killing four people in a drunk driving accident? A psychologist for the defense defined “affluenza” as an affliction unique to children of privilege; claiming that the young man’s coddled upbringing led to an inability to connect actions with consequences. We have to assume that he said this with a straight face, because judge and jury bought it. Which begs a question: Does the world have two justice systems…one for the rich and one for the poor?
Child’s Pose, a new film from Romanian writer-director Calin Peter Netzer, would seem to reinforce that suspicion. Shooting in a unfussy, Dogme 95-styled manner, and armed with a script (co-written by Razvan Radulescu) that blends droll satire with social realism, Netzer paints a portrait of contemporary Romanian class warfare through the eyes of a haughty bourgeoisie woman named Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu).
We are introduced to Cornelia, a middle-aged, well-to-do architect who power-puffs every cigarette like it’s her last, as she is lamenting to her sister (Natasa Raab) about her relationship with her adult son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache). Why does she always have to initiate contact? He hasn’t phoned her for weeks…it must be that controlling wife of his (“That creature…she’s got him by his tail, like a little mouse.”). “Stop pestering him,” her sister says. It quickly becomes apparent that Cornelia is the one who has control issues.
Cornelia’s need to know every detail of Barbu’s life seems to go above and beyond the normal parental concerns. In a particularly telling scene, she invites her housekeeper (who she has hired to regularly clean her son’s home as well) to take a break and join her for a cup of coffee. Cornelia masterfully turns the chit-chat into an intelligence-gathering session. How is their place…”messy as usual”? When she dusted Barbu’s nightstand, did she happen to notice which book was there? Is it the one she recently sent, she wonders? Cornelia casually offers the maid a 200 Euro pair of shoes she found whilst cleaning out her closet; a payoff, disguised as an act of noblesse oblige.
One evening, Cornelia is attending an opera recital when she is suddenly torn away by her sister, who has bad news. Barbu is down at the police station; he has been involved in a car accident. He’s okay, but he has struck and killed a teenage boy. The look on Cornelia’s face speaks volumes. There’s none of the expected shock, or sense of panic. Rather, you can see all the gears turning. This is it. This is her “in”. Barbu is in trouble. Big trouble. But mama can help. Mama has her connections. She knows what to kiss, and when. She knows how the system works. She’s already formulating an action plan…not necessarily out of a maternal drive to “save” her son from jail, but to get him back under her thumb, where he belongs (Gheorghiu telegraphs all of this beautifully, wordlessly).
As you watch Cornelia serpentine her way though Bucharest like a preying viper, playing the cops, witnesses, and the victim’s working-class family like violins, it almost becomes a moot point that her spoiled, ne’er do well son is guilty as hell of negligent homicide. That’s because you’re so gob smacked by Cornelia’s gumption that you develop a morbid fascination with whether or not she is actually going to pull all this off. Of course, there would have to be some enabling factors involving the inherent corruption within “The System” as well, and Netzer doesn’t spare any barbs there either.
While some viewers may be put off by the deliberate pacing (I’ll confess it took me about 20 minutes to get in tune with what the film was even going to be about) those with patience will be rewarded. Gheorghiu’s performance is the most compelling reason to stick with it; she’s the most conniving, insufferably narcissistic maternal nightmare you’ll love to hate this side of Livia Drusilla .
It would be easy to say that the film’s message is “money talks, justice walks”, but the ambiguous denouement gives me pause. It seems that no victory that’s bought and paid for comes without a hidden cost. I’m not a religious man (had to look this up on Mr. Google) but how does that quote go…“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul”? Erm, amen to that.