by George Sax
Not quite Sophoclean
It’s hard to fix just when the American celebration and glorification of motherhood began to subside, but throughout the middle third of the last century, the institution was increasingly subject to criticism and blame. Before then, there was singer Al Jolsen, in blackface, with his syrupy crooning of “Mammy.” Less outrageously, in the mid-1930s movie audiences could witness the unbearable poignance of Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas standing in the rain and peering through a window at the wedding of the daughter she nobly gave up to a rich lover and his wife. Until a cop tells her to move on.
Maybe the tide began to turn in 1942 with the publication of social nag Philip Wylie’s book A Generation of Vipers, in which he included a Mencken-esque polemic against “Momism,” which he blamed for everything from vulgar consumerism to ineffectual, withdrawn males. Then came the psychiatrists who attributed homosexuality and juvenile delinquency to domineering mothers. Movies weren’t far behind. In Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s character seems to personify the latter problem. Several years earlier, Leo McCarey’s weird My Son John held the title character’s mother responsible for his Communist treason. And of course, there was Anthony Perkins’s mother-ridden psychopath in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose can strike one as a throwback to that era’s gender blame-mongering. Romania’s foreign-film Oscar entry, the movie is a psychological portrait of obsessive matriarchal dominance amid the country’s post-Communist social order. Cornelia (an impressive Luminita Gheorghiu), a prosperous architect, is an obvious beneficiary of this society’s new apportionment of rewards and status. Netzer and his scripter, Razvan Radulescu, waste no time in a setup. The movie begins with Cornelia in her spacious, well-appointed flat complaining to her sister-in-law about her neglectful, 30-something, semi-estranged son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache). He doesn’t call or respond to her calls.
But this is a lot more serious than Jewish mother-type comedy. Cornelia interrogates the maid who works for both of them. What books are in his bedroom? Did Barbu and his companion pay this woman? She pays for these questions by trying to give this woman a pair of cast-off designer shoes.
The ante is soon dramatically upped. Word arrives that Barbu has been arrested after killing a boy with his car. Mobilized into action, Cornelia rushes to the police station, demanding information, complaining about the officials “coming down hard on the poor child.” (This perversely strange and repellant reference isn’t unique for Cornelia.) Very soon, she’s trying to arrange for professional assistance, pressing her physician husband to obtain help from colleagues. (He is more conciliatory, as well as more skeptical about their son.) Most crucially, in a grubby transaction, she tries to get a key witness to change his story.
Her doubled-down efforts don’t produce any evident gratitude from Barbu. He’s uncooperative, a little belligerent, and petty. This is a deeply poisonous relationship. As the movie dramatizes it, it’s also unbalanced and not entirely persuasive. Netzer gives us a mother’s obsession and attempts at infantilizing a son, but one may wonder how psychologically astute this is in view of Cornelia’s material and professional success. One odd and off-putting scene in particular, in which Barbu submits to Cornelia’s ministrations to his minor, crash-related injury, doesn’t ring true, given his obvious distaste for and resentment of his mother.
Netzer might have better focused on his country’s recent economic and social changes and their consequences. He alludes to them a few times as Cornelia takes advantage of her position and opportunities, but perhaps not sufficiently.
There’s a very emotional and compelling final scene that may hint at changes of heart and mind, but it’s too late and a little too ambiguous to unring the movie’s bell, or to transform Child’s Pose.
Watch the trailer for Child's Pose
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