Surviving the Monster Mom: Child’s Pose
“I hope it’s like a mirror.”
(Călin Peter Netzer on Child’s Pose)
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.”
(Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse” )
If a toxic abusive mother raised you, be forewarned. Child’s Pose is a harrowing and deeply traumatic film that will leave you shaken far beyond any previous cinematic exploration of familial horror and dysfunction. Another superb example of the Romanian New Wave Cinema, Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului), directed by Călin Peter Netzer, and co-written by Netzer and novelist Răzvan Rădulescu, emerged from lengthy discussions Netzer and Rădulescu had about their own domineering mothers. The result is one of the most emotionally demanding films one can imagine.
The plot of Child’s Pose is deceptively simple: a wealthy Romanian mother, Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu) will stop at nothing to keep her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) from going to jail after he hits and kills a young boy while speeding on the freeway in a race with another driver. That a wealthy son is responsible for the death of an underprivileged child is important in that it is used to force us into an engagement with a spectacularly dysfunctional mother-son relationship and, at a secondary level, to explore the evil of the class system of Romania, a society rife with blatant corruption and moral decay.
As Dana Stevens notes in Slate, “the original title, Pozitia copiluilui, refers to the literal physical position of a child – an image which might have several meanings in the movie’s context, none of them involving a relaxing forehead-to-floor asana,” and much more to do with the cringing, child-like, defeated persona of Barbu, who seems to have no life or will of his own.
I have never witnessed another film that so effectively captures the inescapable trauma of being the spawn of such a dangerously toxic pathological mother. There is no doubt in my mind that both Netzer and Rădulescu understand first hand the pathology of the monstrous parent; the level of realism in the film obviously has much to do with personal experience.
Netzer even arranged for Luminita Gheorghiu to meet with his own mother, one of the real-life “models” for the film, so Gheorghiu could witness the warped logic of the narcissist first hand. Gheorghiu’s performance is breathtaking. She is in every shot in the film, and the camera is constantly following her, in the same way that one can never fully escape the ever-present toxicity of a brutalizing narcissistic mother in real life.
As Netzer told R. Kurt Osenlund during an interview in Filmmaker Magazine,
“the script was written by me and Razvan Radulescu, and we had very long discussions about our mothers. Because our mothers, in our childhoods, were very domineering. That was the starting point of the screenplay. There are various parts of my mother in the character of Cornelia. For example, I had my mother meet Luminita, so Luminita could have an idea of what she was like.”
Shot on a shoestring budget in 30 days with two handheld digital cameras, Child’s Pose relies upon an uncomfortable enforced intimacy that renders us unable to escape the toxic mother. We are so closely tied to this woman that we feel unable to breathe, as if we are inside her womb, desperate to escape her manically driven behavior, her torturous illogic, her endless lies and manipulations of her family and other victims, her casual bribery, destruction of evidence, witness tampering, and her willful psychological castration of both her husband and son.
As the film opens, we meet Cornelia, who is constantly accompanied by her sister in law Olga (Natașa Raab). The two of them are overly privileged wealthy self-absorbed narcissists, existing in a world of endless power without any visible means of support. Cornelia is supposed to be an architect, but we never see her working at her trade; we do, however, see her hobnobbing with well-connected politicians, and dancing up a storm at an official party in the film’s opening minutes. She’s clearly at home in a world of power and privilege.
Where exactly does all their money come from? Don’t ask. In the vampire economy of the new world order, as exemplified in contemporary Romania, it is probably better not to know such things.
In a dinner party scene, Cornelia and Olga discuss the accidental castration of a man who was a victim of botched surgery. Both display an astonishing lack of empathy for a man who lost his penis to an incompetent doctor, and describe the surgery in detail as we listen and watch in horror. Castration is routine to these women, but they go even further, and rapidly decide that the surgeon is not morally culpable, because he meant no harm. This scene takes on an important resonance because it offers a glimpse into the mind of a sociopath like Cornelia. In the same way that she excuses the surgeon’s incompetence, she casually shrugs off any moral responsibility on her part, or on the part of her son.
In Cornelia’s twisted logic, she always “means well” so anything she does, no matter how ghastly or corrupt, is morally upright. Similarly, her spoiled and overly dependent son “means well,” so in her eyes he is never responsible for his actions. In their delusional, grandiose schemes, they take the job of manipulating their loved ones as seriously as a state official, acting as a metaphor for the corrupt police and the governmental and corporate thugs who oppress those beneath them. Cornelia and Olga will not be denied their life of luxury; they spend their time smoking, drinking, endlessly chattering on their cellphones, bitterly running down family members and manipulating everyone in their family. Everyone is fair game.
In one very uncomfortable scene, Cornelia tries to buy off her maid with a gift of shoes that won’t even fit her. This is no gift; it is an act of domination. The maid trembles as she accepts the shoes that will be of no use to her, but in Cornelia’s mind, again, she feels she “means well” so she does not even notice the mortified behavior of her maid. Narcissists can’t empathize, they feel entitled, they see other people as an extension of themselves. They have no sense of humor, and they will stop at nothing to get what they want, precisely because they feel that they are entitled. Gheorghiu so fully embodies the pathologies of the narcissistic mother that by the end of the film you actually feel that you have been in the presence of madness; indeed, the film makes the audience feel like the child of a sociopath.
Children of narcissistic parents are brainwashed by their toxic mothers and fathers, just as Cornelia’s son Barbu is manipulated, unable to detach from his suffocating mother and subjected to the emotional abuse that includes infantilization, gas lighting, triangulation and many other forms of controlling behavior. Barbu’s father, Florin (Domnul Făgărășanu) is a shambling wreck who long ago gave up on dealing with Cornelia’s whims; in turn, Barbu is putatively married to Carmen (Ilinca Goia), but the union is a failure; he simply does not know how to relate to another adult, much less function as a husband.
Most significant to Child’s Pose is that the child of a narcissist is brainwashed into a state of guilt and obeisance. Cornelia incessantly runs guilt trips on Barbu, who cannot win in this struggle without leaving the toxic parent. Cornelia’s love is utterly conditional; she withdraws it every time Barbu attempts to take responsibility for his own actions and behave like an adult. She abuses him for his arrested development, but she herself is responsible for it. He cannot win in this struggle. He must leave his mother in order to grow up and survive, and he tries to tell her this at a few key moments in the narrative.
Yet in her own mind, everything Cornelia does is for Barbu, and she constantly reminds him of this as she runs from one meeting to the next for most of the film’s running time “fixing things,” to ensure that Barbu never gets to behave as a grown up man by taking responsibility. Barbu has no more significance to Cornelia than her other ‘belongings,’ such as her husband, her BMW, her ever present cigarettes and the pills she lives on, which appear to be some sort of speed. Indeed, she’s a speed freak, constantly driven by pharmaceuticals, and her own madness.
Cornelia thinks that she controls everything around her. And so, when she receives news of the fatal accident, she instinctively springs into action. She never asks her son how he feels about the car crash. It never even occurs to her that he feels anything; pain, fear or guilt. Indeed, no one else is real to Cornelia; she thinks only, and always, of herself. She has to run everything. She even tells Barbu exactly what to say to the police during his initial interrogation by the authorities. At the same time, she attempts to seduce him into a “child state” with “loving acts” that are simultaneously manipulative and utterly repellent.
In one particular scene that turns uncomfortably sexual, Barbu lies like a baby on his belly in bed. On his back, we see some bruises, the result of a beating he suffered at the hands of the murdered boy’s family at the scene of the accident. Crucially, Netzer does not show the beating on screen, just the result, reinforcing the fact that Cornelia does not see the same reality others see. As Barbu lies in the bed, Cornelia orders him to take off his t-shirt, and begins her metaphorical sexual assault. She climbs onto the bed and mounts him from behind.
Wearing a rubber glove, she applies an anti-inflammatory ointment to the bruises on his back, creating a scene out of an Oedipal nightmare. Cornelia is not just applying ointment, she is effectively raping her own son from behind, and the soundtrack is straight from a porn film, with overly amplified smacking and liquid sounds used to suggest anal rape. As she continues her massage, she rocks her abdomen up and down against his buttocks, as if lost in an erotic frenzy. Barbu is clearly disgusted as much by his mother’s behavior as his own inability to defy her. We hear the smacking sounds of the liquid as it is applied to his neck, as Cornelia works her way down his back in an unmistakably sexual manner.
Similarly disturbing is Cornelia’s manipulation of the police. When the initial accident report lists Barbu’s speed as 140 km/h when he hit the young boy, Cornelia intervenes, insisting that it must have been 110 km/h, closer to the legal speed limit. She then agrees to help the chief officer with a landscaping permit for his property, essentially asking him to falsify documents to ensure Barbu’s exoneration. Cornelia is also not above tampering with witnesses; why should she be? Contacting the other driver involved in the accident, the slimy Dinu (Vlad Ivanov), Cornelia tries to buy his silence, only to recoil at the price; 100,000 euros. Everyone is on the take.
Unsurprisingly, Cornelia also tries to buy off the victim’s family. Near the end of the film, Cornelia visits the parents of the slain boy. She drives into the poverty stricken neighborhood to the home of the boy’s parents, looking through the window of her BMW as if she were a queen visiting the slums. Barbu, terrified, sits in the back seat of the car in a fetal position, afraid to face the parents of the child he killed; this makes audience identification with Barbu all the more complex.
We would like to see Barbu behave like an adult, but we know that Cornelia has effectively destroyed his spirit with her almost complete suffocation of his independence. In the courtyard of the humble home of the slain boy, after casually walking by his coffin and a large cross at the front of the home, neither of which have any effect on her, Cornelia brazenly knocks on the door of the parents.
The father of the dead child (Adrian Titieni) opens the door, and is momentarily speechless. Staring at Cornelia in shock, he suddenly disappears into the house, and we hear anguished cries from within. Anyone else would think twice before proceeding, but nothing stops the relentless Cornelia. She waits patiently until she is finally invited into the home. Her idea of begging for forgiveness on the part of her son is to deflect any guilt on his part. Barbu, she insists, did not mean to do anything wrong. He means well. She means well.
Speaking to the dead boy’s mother, Cornelia quickly makes the accident about herself. All pain and suffering, no matter who the victim is, has to do with Cornelia. She goes on and on about how much pain she feels about her own losses. With a complete lack of empathy, she actually compares the possible loss of her son (to jail) with the death of the young boy. Everything that comes out of her mouth is a lie, a manipulation, or a distortion, yet one gets the eerie feeling that she believes every word she says, at least at the moment she says it. She effortlessly twists words and truths as an architect moves huge steel beams in the sky to conform to a specific and rigid plan.
Cornelia feels nothing for the distraught parents, but as a gifted sociopath, she knows exactly how to fake emotion. It takes her several minutes to work up some tears, no doubt shed for herself, as she pretends that she has nothing but love, understanding and pathos for the parents. She pulls out an envelope stuffed with cash, clearly offering a bribe, saying that she wishes to help pay for the funeral. When the parents turn down the money, she insists that they take it for the brother of the deceased. Through it all, the mother looks at Cornelia with an impassive gaze; she’s dumbfounded by Cornelia’s actions, and doesn’t know how to respond. Eventually we are allowed to escape this torturous scene when Cornelia returns to her BMW.
Yet the film’s final scene offers some small measure of hope, as Barbu seems, for the first time, to effectively challenge his mother’s management of every detail of his life. Sitting in the backseat of the car, he finally asks his mother to “let him out,” and she reluctantly complies by releasing the child safety lock on the car doors, and Barbu stumbles out of the car. Crucially, the handheld camera, which has always been very close up on Cornelia, does not follow Barbu, as he finally summons the bravery to face the father of the boy he killed. Instead of going in for a closer shot of Barbu and the father as they interact, Netzer traps us inside the car; we cannot fully see or hear what takes place between Barbu and the father.
We are limited to what we can view from the back and side windows and the rear view mirror of the car. We can barely see Barbu as he confronts the father. He’s trembling and unable to speak or move for a moment, head hanging in shame, like a little boy who has done wrong but wishes to make things right. The scene allows for ambiguity, but I for one, wept profusely when Barbu and the boy’s father clumsily take one another’s hand for a brief moment, evoking the possibility of some sort of honesty and rapprochement.
Interestingly, in making the film Netzer says that he tried very hard to avoid the controlling behavior we associate and expect of great auteurs. Netzer relied on the director of photography, Andrei Butica and his crew to help make decisions on the set about how to create the story, and how to document it. Though he used a shooting script and storyboards, Netzer felt more comfortable in allowing his collaborators to contribute to the creative process. As he told Osenlund of the intensely intimate visual style the film displays,
“We shot on two digital cameras, and we decided that we’d rehearse the whole scene, and then after that, I’d leave the freedom to the d.p. and the other cameraman to shoot the scene, and follow the actors, and look at the world from their point of view. So it was an exercise for me in sort of losing control. It was important on set as the director because the story of Child’s Pose is very close to me. I decided to give the crew the freedom to tell the story through their eyes.”
Similarly, Netzer allowed the actors, especially Gheorghiu and Dumitrache a great deal of latitude in interpreting and performing the roles of Cornelia and Barbu. As a final touch of realism, the film is almost entirely devoid of music; the only songs we hear are brief snippets of classical music and pop songs used as cellphone ring tones, incessantly beckoning the characters to yet another desperate rendezvous. The cellphones are almost a character in the film; they are the umbilical cords that attach all the characters in a web of lies and deceptions.
When asked what he hopes to accomplish with Child’s Pose, Netzer displayed an openness that is not all that common with film directors; when asked by Osenlund what he hoped the film might accomplish, Netzer haltingly replied,
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. Maybe someone will reconsider his behavior because of the son character’s behavior toward his parents. Or maybe the other way around. I hope it’s like a mirror.”
Child’s Pose was awarded the Golden Bear and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, and was Romania’s submission to the 86th Annual Academy Awards. Early on, the Hollywood Reporter listed Child’s Pose as one of four top contenders for the award for Best Foreign Language Film, but in the end, the film wasn’t even nominated. Besides Best Documentary, Best Foreign Language films are the only works I invest anything in emotionally when it comes to the Academy Awards, and the winner, predictably, was the commercially viable and artistically bankrupt The Great Beauty, an insignificant semi-remake of Federico Fellini’s masterwork La Dolce Vita (1960).
The omission of Child’s Pose – even from the list of Academy Award nominees – severely limits the number of screens on which it will play, and thus makes the film less accessible to millions of viewers. Nevertheless, the film is doing remarkably well at finding its audience worldwide, and critics have nothing but praise for the Child’s Pose, most often singling out the depth and significance of Gheorghiu as the monstrous Cornelia, a mother so toxic that with one killing look she could easily destroy Medea, or even the Gorgon.
Author’s Note: For my mother; in the wake of your recent death, I am only now beginning to grasp the true nature of your condition. For my father; it’s clear to me that you had only one choice to survive: you fled for your life. I forgive you both.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, with many publications to her credit. She writes regularly for Film International; her website can be found here.
Stevens, Dana (2014), “Child’s Pose: It Ain’t About Yoga”, Slate, 21 February. Accessed 17 March 2014.
Osenlund, R. Kurt (2014), “Child’s Pose Director Călin Peter Netzer on Rigorous Preparation, Letting Go on Set, and Riding the Romanian New Wave”, Filmmaker Magazine, 19 February. Accessed 17 March 2014.