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Child’s Pose: The Limits of the Awful Mother


Child's Pose R

By Christopher Sharrett.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers on this site a larger account of Călin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose than what follows here. I saw a Region 1 DVD of this film; it is impressive in many respects, yet not as accomplished, to my mind, as some of the exemplary works of the current Romanian cinema.

Enough has been said about the film to date that no summary is needed. Suffice it to say that a very wealthy, domineering woman named Cornelia tries to save her son from prosecution when he accidentally kills a child with his car. The film contains no hint of the Ceausescu- or post-Ceausescu era, the atmosphere of which haunts some of the more outstanding Romanian films (the work of Cristian Mingiu). On the contrary, the backdrop of Child’s Pose is the parasitical capitalist economy – which Cornelia and her husband fully represent – that has replaced “communism,” making many actually wish for the days of Ceausescu. The portrayal of the new, supranational economy overtaking Romania, with familiar brand names everywhere (liquor brands are prominent, suggesting the need for this common narcotic) is perhaps the film’s most compelling feature. But the connection of this economy to Cornelia, other than showing that she partakes of it, is problematical. If we are to accept her as someone rendered sociopathic (as Foster asserts), do we face the old and useless notion of the sociopath as aberration, or as one indeed manufactured, with the entirety of society, by capitalist economy?

My difficulty with Cornelia is her underdevelopment as a character. Were this character male, there would be little or no need for a greater exposition – we know the privileges and inclinations of men under patriarchal arrangements. The female, I suggest, presents us with many problems when she, the permanent victim of the male order, is rendered as monstrous. Of course women can indeed be monstrous; they have no special exceptions under the present civilization, although I would say that women figure rather less in genocide and human oppression than do men (there are always the Thatchers).

ci-fo-6791_0.jpgThere are any number of instances where the female simply imbibes the “values” of the male, often with consequences that are less than beneficial to her. There are ways of understanding this from a Freudian or neo-Freudian standpoint that have relevance to Child’s Pose: through pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing (especially of the male child) the female appropriates the phallus, at least temporarily. The mother can turn the child into a husband, either because of emotional deprivation or a need to strike out at the husband (the Athenian tragedians are always helpful here). The transformation of the child need not be outright sexual, due to the need to respect social norms, even as its features are transparent in their nearly self-destructive aspect, their calling attention to norm-breaking (all this applies to Netzer’s film).

But what exactly motivates Cornelia? Netzer might be acquainting us with a “cult of the mother” peculiar to Romania (certainly it would be the opposite of Japan’s), a view of the currently-avaricious mother with which I am not familiar. If so, there is little to work with here aside from an immediate assertion that Cornelia is a monster. Some online comments have complained that the film is about “mean people being mean.” I would not say it’s that simple, but there is indeed an element of tautology here: Cornelia is bad because she is bad.

The castrated husband is introduced as castrated, if also repugnant in his own right. The process of domination of the son, Barbu, has already happened: we see the dynamic of its consequence, but not the origin of the act. There is a conspiratorial moment early in the film when Cornelia sits with her sister who reminisces with her, telling Cornelia that if she had other children she could “choose,” a ghastly, but common enough, idea suggesting that Cornelia could have a “favorite” while alienating the others. But, again, such thoughts seem offered merely as endemic to the female, especially in the instance of the “rich bitch.”

There is a moment during the elaborate dinner early in the film that I find disturbing. We see Cornelia dancing alone as a lull occurs in the party; the camera lingers. Are we asked to see her as physically grotesque, living out a self-absorbed moment that belongs only to the young? Or is this a small grace note, suggesting that Cornelia at least isn’t physically repulsive? I have to say I am confused here.

There are other moments that seem to convey sympathy for Cornelia. She meets at a shopping mall café with a witness-turned-extortionist, who will alter his testimony about Barbu’s role in the accident for a price. At first Cornelia seems able to take on this man and all other comers, but as the exchange ends she fumbles with her purse, her bearing less confident. The note of ambiguity is fine, but is this chink in her armor supposed to suggest that her “reign” is about to end?

The famous ending – with Barbu, in the back seat of her car, asking Cornelia to “unlock” him – offers another under-motivated moment, and a definitive one in terms of bringing events to easy closure. He wants to be unlocked to speak with the dead girl’s father (we don’t hear the conversation), but also finally to be liberated from his mother. Cornelia sits rather downcast (we don’t see her face), suggesting that her control has indeed ended. But what has ended it? Are we to believe that the monster was actually moved by the dead child’s parents? Why? Does she finally realize that “it’s time to give up.” If she has indeed simply surrendered, she isn’t such a monster after all – or the project simply wasn’t very thought-through.

Child's PoseWatching this or any similar film, one can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s Terrible Mothers, any one of which could be said to be as underdeveloped as Cornelia. It has been argued that Psycho is about insanity setting in when the male is absent, allowing the shrewish, crazed female to have her way. I don’t agree with this judgment, since the film establishes clearly the role of patriarchal authority not only in the Norman story, but most especially in Marion’s. There are problems with The Birds in regard to the presentation of the hysterical female. Lydia Brenner might be proven right in her complaints that Mitch is not that man his father was, but the whole film dissolves into madness; the mother’s fixation on the dead husband (the portrait, with the dead bird atop) turns out to be the archetypal folly of human history. Hitchcock was filled with unresolved neuroses, both as man and artist, but there was simply more evidence in his Terrible Mother narratives than in Child’s Pose (the title referring to the fetal position?) with which one can evaluate the importance of the filmmaker’s view of gender, and of the film as a significant contribution. I am by no means dismissing Child’s Pose; there is enough happening in it of interest to warrant repeated viewings (I’ve watched it three times) and reevaluation.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes frequently for Film International.

9 Comments for Child’s Pose: The Limits of the Awful Mother”

  1. Gwendolyn Aiudrey Foster

    I very much agree that our current climate of vulture capitalism, a world designed around crushing Darwinian competition nurtures a world that is increasingly psychopathic and lacking in empathy. Nevertheless, there is substantial scientific evidence that personality disorders are not entirely manufactured by capitalism, but demonstrably biological and genetic in nature. I can’t agree, therefore, that personality disorders and psychopathology, as displayed in Cornelia, is entirely manufactured by our sick society.

    I do agree, however, that capitalism fosters a toxic social stratification in which pathological and narcissistic behavior is routinely rewarded; your point is well taken.

    Few who suffer from personality disorders actually seek help precisely because they are empowered under capital (whether they are mothers, or CEO’s or bankers or white collar criminals, etc.)

    That she can never change is the tragedy of Cornelia as both monster and victim. I find her fully developed through her behavior, her actions, and in many other ways.

    To my mind, Child’s Pose is an in-depth character study of a woman who is clearly suffering from an undiagnosed personality disorder and she suffers even as she inflicts suffering. One of the things that draws me to the film is the way it does not stop to explain or over simplify Cornelia’s motivations. Instead Netzer allows the viewer to slowly figure Cornelia out as her character unfolds slowly and relentlessly.

    Like many critics, I saw Cornelia’s strange lonely dance at her own birthday party as a glimpse into the mind of a woman who is completely alienated from other human beings. To my mind, it is significant that Cornelia is a delusional prisoner of capitalism and a lost frightened soul, but she is also a woman whose monstrous and illicit behavior is supported and unquestioned by a corrupt society. One of the triumphs of the film is the way this is rendered so effectively through a slow and procedural examination of a culture that supports such monstrous behavior. Cornelia’s character unfolds in scenes with others who are similarly corrupt. Indeed the only figure who seems to be uncorrupted here is the daughter-in-law, who Cornelia corrupts in a castration of the female of sorts: (when she asks her such intimate questions about the couple’s sex life, for instance.) Scenes such as this one fully characterize Cornelia as a manipulative and charming psychopath who will stop at nothing in her efforts to control others and maintain her illusion of power.

    Cornelia’s birthday party is both moving and frightening to me as it exposes the rotten core of the wealthy who now run things in the post-Ceausescu era. Several Romanian film critics note that Cornelia acts as a reminder of the bloody Ceausescu era as much as she embodies the callousness of the privileged capitalist elite in the new Romania, so darkly rendered here. The birthday party is character defining in that it clearly demonstrates that Cornelia has many loathsome rich associates who encourage her monstrous behavior. Sadly, they offer her no real closeness though, only the façade of friendship. But it is impossible to pity her or to even really know her. I recognize that feeling from personal experience.

    Cornelia’s pals are acutely callous, lacking in empathy, and they actually brag about their capitalist exploits. Netzer exposes a corrupt society that enables evil people with sociopathic gluttonous desires for wealth, but it is not a society terribly unlike America. This is the human wreckage review of capitalism and it exists well beyond Romania. I think we’d agree that Romanian cinema currently captures this very effectively, however.

    The characterization here could not be more deep or manifestly clear in my estimation. Cornelia’s clothing, speech, and mannerisms subtly paint a woman who does not come from a wealthy privileged background. She is a woman who is terrified of losing her wealth and the only reason she tries to protect her son is to protect her place in wealthy society.

    Cornelia’s face is a mask of terror even as she goes about her monstrous everyday behavior, chain smoking and texting obsessively. Her choices in clothing demonstrate that she lacks the taste and upbringing of a woman of privilege. Cornelia wears leopard prints and clothing that seems chosen from the teen section. She does not know how to dress with the taste of those who grow up in privilege, nor does she know how to speak or behave. Romanian critics note that she is fashioned as a bit like Elena Ceaușescu, a woman of power who was herself both mocked for her social awkwardness and feared for her malicious abuse of power and privilege.

    Cornelia is suffering from madness, she is alone even while surrounded by people, which is often the case of those suffering from personality disorders. She speaks in a poor accent, barking orders like a pitbull. She is an exemplification of a bully no different than any of the vulgarians of newly minted wealth elsewhere, such as the Trumps or the Kardashians who are similarly clad in leopard skin, leather, and vulgarity.

    Significantly, Cornelia’s monstrousness is matched here by the callousness of the nouveau riche crooks who surround her at her own party. These ghouls
    no-doubt profited from the parasitical post-Ceausescu regime that rapidly morphed into a culture of capitalist inequity itself– built on white-collar crime and routine bullying.

    With the end of the film Cornelia has not changed one little bit. Her encounter with a bigger monster, the witness/ extortionist turned extortionist, throws her only momentarily. My suspicion is that he is introduced primarily to demonstrate the casual nature of corruption in society.

    Cornelia is not at all emotionally moved by her meeting with the parents of the child killed by her son, to my mind. She is not at all moved by the coffin of the boy or the presence of the dead, nor do the mother’s cries of anguish have any impact upon her. There is no sense of the mother’s tears or the father’s anger making any impact whatsoever on Cornelia. If anything the interaction seems to strengthen her resolve. She flings an envelope of cash on the table as if she can bribe her way out of any responsibility whatsoever. This is as ugly as capitalism and mental illness can get. It is a moment of callous behavior that certainly matches the moments of similarly vile inhumanity as displayed in a film such as Beyond the Hills.

    Barbu, Cornelia’s son, may be finally escaping her clutches at the end (this is not definite – I think it is just a possibility) but Cornelia herself never changes in the lsightest. We cannot expect any change in her behavior because psychopaths are incapable of self-evaluation. If anything, at the end, I think she is even more hell-bent on holding on to her power and privilege so the situation for Barbu is even more treacherous after the meeting with the child’s parents.

    Admittedly, my reaction is subjective, as is any critical reaction to the film, and some may read it differently, but my experience with a mother who apparently suffered from a number of personality disorders strongly suggests to me that Cornelai is incapable of change and trapped by her mental illness.

    The literature on personality disorders and the science behind this literature shows that changing a brain disorder is almost impossible, especially since those suffering such disorders do not think they need help and they can are particularly good at mimicking normal behavior. They are very charming and they often leave a path of human wreckage in their wake, but they are physically different in the brain.

    This is something that I personally struggled with for many years. I was puzzled with the question of my mother’s monstrous behavior. How could she possibly live with herself? Was she evil? Was she mentally ill? Why, in the face of the consequences of her behavior, behavior that included horrific abuse and neglect of her own children and ended in most of her children’s destruction, my sister’s suicide and my mother’s alienation from her own children who ran away from her; why could she not take any responsibility?

    As it took me many years to grasp, my mother’s mental illness went undiagnosed. She must have suffered from a number of personality disorders and she was obviously incapable of empathy. That is brain chemistry and it is not something that has a blame. Ours was a family that is a textbook case of narcissistic parenting. I empathize so fully with Barbu that perhaps I neglected in my article to demonstrate that Cornelia is both a monster and a tragic victim of mental illness and the values of capitalist society, but the film makes this quite clear and most of the film is a depthy character study of Cornelia and Barbu.

    As we have discussed many times, I don’t think women are any less capable of monstrous behavior than men. In my opinion, patriarchy and capitalism are equally destructive to men and women,just in different ways. I can’t agree that Cornelia, by virtue of being female, needs further exposition than she would if she were a monstrous male character.

    We will have to disagree on this, but I can’t possibly agree that in order to become monstrous, women must imbibe the values of the male. Nor do I agree that men are inherently more involved in the oppression of human beings, though society inculcates such ideas and forces men to be the blunt instruments of power from soldiers to CEO’s.

    As we have discussed, I find the idea of women having to borrow phallic power (through pregnancy, birth and childrearing) or in any manner, quite problematic and reject these assumptions. Any understanding of gender that starts out with the premise that “woman is defined as lack,” (and that any power women have is merely borrowed from the phallic order) is inherently sexist and problematic in understanding women’s role in supporting patriarchy. I think we will have to agree to disagree on the notion of the phallic woman, as we have discussed many times.

    I am stumped as to why you’d employ a comparative example from Hitchcock here. The terrible mothers of Hitchcock films tell us much more about Hitchcock than they do about women or gender in the real world, although they do reflect sick societal values. I have trouble seeing any relationship between Norman Bates’s mother fixation and Barbu’s relationship with his mother Cornelia.

    Unlike Călin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose, and Cristian Mingiu’s Beyond the Hills, in my estimation Hitchcock’s work lacks a critique of gender roles and employs repugnant (dated and misogynist) pop-Freudian representations of the Mother as terrifying castrating figure.

    You ask for an origination of Cornelia’s acts of domination over her son, but such an explanation would only be possible if there was, in Cornelia’s mind, a split between her self and her child. Barbu is a mere extension of her narcissistic self, thus her domination of him is an extension of her domination of herself and her obsessive attempts to control the world, so there can be no origin or backstory, nor is there any reason or logic behind her mad behavior other than her compulsions and fears.

    The scene that perhaps best reveals Cornelia as suffering from narcissistic personality disorder comes when which she attempts to “bare her soul” to the mother of the dead child. Though it is very hard to even know if this in itself is a good acting job, I think some truths come out in her lengthy speech. Cornelia relates a litany of unfulfilled dreams that she had for Barbu, but these are clearly not dreams she had for her child, but unfulfilled dreams for her self. I suspect that in this scene the mother of the dead child recognizes that Cornelia lives through her child, and she also recognizes that Cornelia is mad.

    Child’s Pose is a masterwork of Romanian cinema, both in it’s effective rendering of madness and the dark world of late capital that nurtures pathology and cruelty.

    As you say, Chris, there is much more here that warrants further exploration.

  2. Christopher Sharrett

    Gwendolyn, you are obviously deeply moved by this film, evidenced most in your recounting of your personal experiences with your mother. I have no problem with this, but such remarks need to be adequately tied to the work under study so as to illuminate it with specificity. I think you are applying an argument to this film of a psychological nature (and this isn’t a very psychological film) rather than allow an argument to flow from the work itself. Your comments on things like the mother’s solo dance are very general–perhaps because the moment itself lacks a sense of purpose. Terms like “personality disorder” are current psychiatry-speak that help us very little…and they suggest that she is just some nutty aberration. If she has some kind of “disorder”, is it to be blamed on capitalism? Does the film suggest that ALL the characters are disordered by capitalism? I think not. Had the film portrayed a society of madmen made so, implicitly or otherwise, by capitalism, I would probably not have a problem with the film. The director had this opportunity and failed to take it, or did not know ho

    Richard III is a monster. We know why he is a monster, and how his monstrousness is tied to a historical moment because of sharply defined evidence, sometimes straightforward, even coarse, sometimes subtle. I don’t want to compare Netzer to Shakespeare, but Richard III is a case where there is plenty of evidence, gracefully given, to make us know why the author wrote what he did.

    The work of Hitchcock, his language, perhaps don’t have much pertinence here, but I would say that the entirety of Psycho, for example, is as good an explanation of patriarchal capitalist society as we have in the commercial cinema; ditto Vertigo and The Birds, and as such overwhelm a work such as Child’s Pose.

    I stand by my view of Child’s Pose as insufficiently serious and thought-through. It does deserve revisiting at least for its ambition..

  3. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    With all due respect, it is impossible to argue with anyone who does not believe in brain science. It is like arguing with somebody who does not believe in global warming or evolution. Personality disorders show up in brain scans, especially those that are associated with a lack of empathy.

    As I said before, capitalism emphatically fosters an environment in which people lacking empathy are rewarded. Child’s Pose demonstrates this point repeatedly, but I can see that you do not see it that way. Society does indeed make madmen (nurture) but so does genetics (nature) and Child’s Pose certainly explores the complicated nature of madness in the individual, in the family, and in our cruel festering capitalist society.

    Child’s Pose is indeed a complex psychological study – not just a study of Cornelia and Barbu – but a study of the psychology of a darkly warped society; but we apparently see the film very differently and we will never agree on this point.

    I can’t agree that it is insufficiently serious and thought-through. Not at all. As far as Hitchcock, his work never critiques misogyny and patriarchy; he fully supports patriarchy and misogyny. He hated women, he hated gays, he hated himself. Only a “reading against the grain” would suggest otherwise. Though he no doubt suffered from serious psychological problems, he did make a few disturbingly misogynist masterworks such as Vertigo, but I do not see the value or interest in a comparison or mention here.

    We will have to agree to disagree. As much as I admire Beyond the Hills, I find Child’s Pose to be a far better film. This is my subjective opinion. I do think it is a better made and more compelling film.

    I know we will never agree on these points but I think we agree that these films are both far more significant than just about any of the junk being excreted by Hollywood.

  4. Christopher Sharrett

    Brain research, climate change, and evolution are not subject to “belief.” They are items of knowledge, unless one lives in a cave. But I’m not sure how my alleged non-belief relates one way or the other to the value of Child’s Pose. For me, your broad allegations about Hitchcock typically throw out the baby with the bathwater. But as you say, we shall agree to disagree.

  5. I’m absolutely amazed by this fourth paragraph that seems a throwback to the bad feminist criticism of the 1970s and shows no knowledge of the critical and sophisticated work on Hitchcock written by scholars such as Robin Wood, Tania Modleski, Andrew Britton, Susan White,Deborah Thomas, Richard Allen, Sidney Gottlieb, David Greven and others to name just a few. Obviously, this comment reveals a serious deficiency in a detailed knowledge of scholarship and the comments reminiscent of a bad freshman and sophomore paper swallowing wholesale the spurious arguments of Donald Spoto in THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS most of which have been refuted by people who worked with Hitchcock. Unfortunately, this is in the nature of the internet and blog type of approach that privileges irrationality and rant at the expense of serious scholarship and knowledge of the diverse critical approaches that have characterized real Hitchcock scholarship over the past forty years.

  6. I am far from the educate scholars you all seem to be, but I’m very interested in film and cinematic history and how they seem to be almost like a microcosm of society for their times. I have taken to this informative website and used it to find an eclectic selections of movies to watch that I normally wouldn’t have even known existed. I read Ms. Foster’s original article, which then prompted me to view the film. From there I found this piece in regards to “Child’s Pose.”

    From my own personal point of view and deep rooted experience, I can say, without question, that whether you believe in brain research or not – the truth remains. You see, clearly, in mathematical terms 2 + 2 = 4. You many not believe it, you may think the answer is 5. However, TRUTH proves undoubtedly and without question that 2 + 2 is in fact, 4. So, that in and of itself makes your point (Mr. Williams), completely invalid.

    I too, like Ms. Foster, have dealt with family members suffering from some form of mental illness (myself included) and I can tell you it’s not only a curse given to the rich and affluent. I came from a very poor upbringing and mental illnesses of all sorts have plagued my family for years. There is clearly a genetic component, which clearly constitutes “brain chemistry.”

    To say that Cornelia’s character need further development just shows how sexist our society still is, and furthermore how far behind men still are in understanding women and their particular psychology. This could be yet another reason women are leaving men in droves and falling into the arms of other women. But that’s a story for another day 😉

  7. Jessica Porter

    This is such a great film!

  8. Lacey, This, of course does not answer my criticism. It is irrational and irrelevant like many of the blog comments on this site. Either this site becomes a serious area of film criticism citing sources and sticking to the point or something resembling the rants of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter. A serious issue was raised and the attempt to deny its validity reveals that the blog is little better than a rant site.

  9. This is the first Romanian film I see and have to say I was pleasantly surprised! Cornelia is the “perfect” unfit mother: she constantly bullies Barbu but when he kills a young boy while speeding she decides the best way to approach it is by trying to cover it and convincing Barbu this isn’t such a big deal. She’s toxic and raised a dependant man that is constantly running to his mother even if he knows this will cause even more harm.

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