If I had a dollar for every guy-made drama lamenting the damage done by monster moms to their helpless sons, I’d be richer than Croesus. Even Shakespeare bears his share of blame for this deathless theme, but at least the Bard’s marauding maters — all props to Hamlet’s mum, but Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia leads the pack — are fun viragos to go rogue with.
The all-father of predatory mothers, though, must surely be Sigmund Freud, whose prints are stamped all over Romania’s foreign-film Oscar entry this year. In Child’s Pose, Luminita Gheorghiu —star of some of the best of the Romanian New Wave in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and Two Days, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and the brilliantly anarchic 1208: East of Bucharest — plays Cornelia, a well-heeled architect and dedicated helicopter parent to her grown son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache).
Barbu, no surprise, is a sullen screw-up who channels his limited energies into bad-mouthing his mother and throwing tantrums over trifles. Upon hearing that her son has crashed his car and killed a working-class teenager, Cornelia goes into top gear, mobilizing every connection in her smartphone address book to fix things so the brat can escape prosecution.
As narcissists go, Cornelia is pretty much a psychoanalytic cliché on wheels. She bemoans Barbu’s efforts to avoid her while covering up for his every false move. (“He called me!” she crows on hearing the bad news.) She trash-talks his live-in girlfriend (Ilinka Goia) and thinks nothing of rummaging through the couple’s most intimate possessions. For his part, Barbu’s an unreconstructed Oedipus who tears strips off his father for caving to his mother’s every whim, then goes all limp rather than taking charge of his own destiny.
More arty than crafty, director Calin Peter Netzer swings a vertiginous hand-held camera between mother and son like some drunken witness to a psychological death match. But if Child’s Pose fails to live up to its indie-intellectual veneer, it earns its keep through Gheorgiu, whose Cornelia is a triumph of subtle performance over crude conception.
If the Hollywood monster mom tends to be a hysterical shrieker — think Jane Fonda in Georgia Rule — Cornelia is a quietly dogged monomaniac so bent on protecting her son that she remains oblivious to the real tragedy unfolding around them both. Cornelia is the kind of woman who walks into a hospital emergency room blind to the impression made by her fur coat and jewels. As she works the phones trying to bend lawyers, bureaucrats, medical personnel and bystanders to her iron will, the movie goes wider and deeper, and we see Cornelia not just as another mother from hell, but as an avatar for Romania’s heedless new elites.
Like the (far superior) recent Russian film Elena, Child’s Pose paints a compelling portrait of post-Soviet capitalism in all its uncorked appetites, its brash cronyism and graft, its pretensions, its clueless philistinism. Grilling the maid she shares with her son for dirt on his fraying domestic arrangements, Cornelia drops the names of writers she’s never read and bribes the hapless help with a gift of her discarded shoes, making sure she knows how much they cost.
Inevitably, Child’s Pose ends with a ritual humbling for the arrogant dowager and her whiny son, who are brought to the realization that grief can’t be measured in euros. Tears flow in abundance, but when Barbu leaves the protection of his mother’s car to shake a bereaved father’s hand, it feels more like a tidy cinematic ending than like a feckless young man growing up at last.