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).
There 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.
Watching 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.