If “Child’s Pose” is the Romanian New Wave’s latest triumph — and I think one can say it is — it’s one of performance and writing over style. Director Călin Peter Netzer’s visual style resembles an arthouse version of the techniques some have dubbed “chaos cinema” in the action movies of Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass. He’s fond of shakycam, sending it bobbing and weaving around the actors like a boxer ducking punches. The effect is derivative, evoking the Dardenne brothers and some of Lars von Trier’s films but without their rigor.
None of that, however, can keep Luminitța Gheorghiu’s star turn from making an impression. As a character who seems like a villain at first but eventually reveals an inner humanity without ever becoming particularly sympathetic, she shines.
Cornelia (Gheorghiu) is a wealthy Bucharest architect who lives with her doctor husband Aurealian (Florin Zamifirescu). Her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) dates Carmen (Ilinca Goia), whom Cornelia dislikes. One night at the opera, Cornelia gets a message on her cell phone and learns Barbu has been in a car accident. The young man isn’t injured, but he ran over and killed a 14-year-old boy. Cornelia and a friend head to the police station. Upon release, Barbu goes back to the family home, although he doesn’t seem comfortable around his mother. Meanwhile, a witness, Mr. Laurentiu (Vlad Ivanov), tries blackmailing Cornelia. Cornelia thinks that perhaps the dead boy’s family can be dissuaded from pressing charges if she pays for his funeral.
The script of “Child’s Pose” was co-written by Netzer and Răzvan Rădulescu, the screenwriter of Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” It’s more conventional than that film, which combined kitchen-sink realism with spiritual allegory as it told the last hours of a dying man in Bucharest’s emergency rooms. Still, Rădulescu couldn’t have found a better showcase for his dialogue than “Child’s Pose,” the last hour of which consists almost entirely of lengthy conversations. The dialogue isn’t showy, but it lets the characters gradually reveal themselves.
In lesser hands, Cornelia could’ve become a misogynist’s caricature. Instead of turning her into a femme fatale, “Child’s Pose” explores the paradoxes of her character. She dotes on her son, but the child she loves seems to be a fantasy creation as much as a real person. When Cornelia and Barbu see each other, you could cut the tension with a knife. Despite her devoted role in keeping him out of jail, he tells her that he doesn’t want her calling him again. She orders him to quit smoking, yet she puffs away herself. The car accident appears to bring to the surface her dependence on her son.
From a beginning that merely sketches the outlines of Cornelia’s upper-class existence — she could be a contender for “The Real Housewives of Bucharest” — “Child’s Pose” takes on more emotional substance as it develops. I just wish Netzer had realized that sometimes less visual pizzazz is more.
CHILD’S POSE | Directed by Călin Peter Netzer | In Romanian with English subtitles | Zetigeist Films | Opens Feb. 19 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.com