Smotherly love

The twisted family dynamics of Romanian film 'Child's Pose' -- complete with its very own, original, terrifying monster

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Mama drama: Luminita Gheorghiu in Child's Pose
PHOTO COURTESY OF ZEITGEIST FILMS

FILM

Lots of big-budget English-language movies are made in Romania now, because it has good production facilities, flexibly "period" locations, and most importantly because it's probably still a lot cheaper to shoot there than wherever your story is actually set (whether 17th-century France or even contemporary suburban America). But that trend started nearly a quarter century ago, when producers of low-rent horror movies (notably Full Moon, with its Subspecies and Puppetmaster series) realized they could film whole movies right where Dracula came from, for less than their LA catering budget.

That sort of thing continues today, and there's even a Full Moon Festival that is the country's only annual horror/sci-fi showcase. Yet in terms of actual Romanian movies, made by and (at least theoretically) for Romanians, horror has never gotten much of a foothold. The Romanian New Wave that began making waves internationally about a decade ago is as far from guilty pleasure genre terrain as possible, being heavy on the very long takes, cryptic narratives, and bleak realism of a particular, stratifying form of high art cinema. You could make a case for some being psychological horror stories, like Cristian Mungiu's 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the cheerful tale of two young women trying to get one illegal abortion amid the pro-life climate of the Ceausescu dictatorship.

At last, however, Romania has come up with its very own, original, terrifying monster movie. Yes, it is only psychological "horror," replete with more long takes, cryptic narrative aspects, and bleak realism. But nothing has been quite as skin-crawling a filmic experience in a while as watching Luminita Gheorghiu as a Bucharest grande dame practicing her particular form of Machiavellian maternal concern in Child's Pose. It's a good thing Mother's Day is still some weeks away, because here is a movie you will need to shake off before regarding your own "I carried you for nine months" claim-staker with anything but fear and loathing.

Cornelia Keneres (Gheorghiu) is introduced kvetching by phone to a friend about her son's girlfriend — one who, being insufficiently Brahmin-born (among other things), she does not approve of. But you sense right away she wouldn't approve of anyone who complicated her successful apron-string strangulation of said only child. She plumbs (and plies with unwanted secondhand-clothing gifts) their discomfited, shared housekeeper for every possible detail about what Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) has said and done of late. She clucks over the affairs of other people's children with similarly well upholstered, upper-class Bucharest matrons you just know steered their families' good fortunes with iron-butterfly will through the awkward transition from corrupt old Communist regime to brave new capitalist world. One such pal is a none-too-retired veteran opera diva who, while coaching two young singers in front of a small audience, can't resist butting in on the junior soprano's part repeatedly.

Cornelia is appreciating this spectacle — selfish, war-painted gorgons must stick together — when she gets an emergency call with some bad news. Her thirtysomething "boy," driving recklessly on a country road, has hit and killed an actual boy. Swooping down like a mother hawk, she immediately sets about intimidating the local police and trying to revise the statement Barbu has already given them.

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