Just when it seemed as if the Romanian New Wave might be petering out, the country managed to claim the top prize at another major film festival. Winning the Golden Bear at Berlin a year ago, despite competition from such luminaries as Hong Sang-soo, Steven Soderbergh, and Ulrich Seidl, Child’s Pose is the third feature directed by Calin Peter Netzer, who hadn’t previously made much of a splash in the world-cinema pond. With all due respect to the 2013 Berlin jury, that’s probably because Netzer has no idea what to do with a movie camera apart from point it in the vague direction of his actors. Since the actors he’s hired are first-rate, and he’s working with an intelligent (if somewhat diffuse) screenplay co-authored by Razvan Radulescu (The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu; 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days; Tuesday, After Christmas), his formal ineptitude doesn’t completely sink the picture. But it does often make it a trial to watch.
Virtually unrecognizable to anyone who knows her only as Mr. Lazarescu’s harried nurse, Luminita Gheorghiu plays a fur-clad society dame named Cornelia, whose life of privilege and ease is tarnished only by her chilly relationship with her only child, Barbu (Bodgan Dumitrache). When Barbu, attempting to pass another vehicle on the freeway, accidentally hits and kills a teenage boy, Cornelia throws all of her wealth and connections at the problem in an effort to exonerate him, or at least ensure that he doesn’t wind up in jail. This involves such charming behavior as bribing the other vehicle’s driver (Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days) to lie about how fast he was going, as well as talking the victim’s grieving family into not pressing charges. But Cornelia also clearly perceives this tragedy as a golden opportunity for her to regain control over her son, a weak-willed specimen who’d finally begun to assert himself by getting involved with what his family considers an “unsuitable” woman (Ilinca Goia).
Sporting a blonde dye job and a haughty, impervious manner, Gheorghiu makes Cornelia a consistently compelling figure, at once monstrous and pathetic. Her meeting with Ivanov’s smug witness, who somehow manages to transform her attempt at bribery into his own attempt at extortion, is a marvel of vicious politesse. Toward the end, however, Radulescu loses his grip on the film’s gestalt—its final scene, while perfectly mimicking the structural grammar of first-rate art cinema, doesn’t feel in any way like a culmination, ending on a vaguely ambiguous note that neither reflects wealthy entitlement (which for a long time seems to be Pose’s primary theme) nor redefines Cornelia and Barbu’s relationship. And Netzer, for some reason, shoots the entire movie with a handheld camera that seems to be held by someone who hasn’t read the script. Numerous conversations place with two characters in profile and then pan at random from one face to the other, back and forth, obliterating any sense of continuity or rhythm. Presumably, this approach is intended to convey urgency, but it mostly just suggests a director who didn’t bother to formulate an aesthetic plan before arriving on the set. If Netzer needs guidance, there are any number of formally accomplished Romanian films—including all of the ones mentioned above—that he can consult.