Director Calin Peter Netzer’s on His Obsessive New Drama ‘Child’s Pose’

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There are few relationships more tender than a mother to her son. For the parent, there’s a inherent and loving desire to forever protect and nourish—yet with such, comes the knowledge that in time, a certain amount of letting go is required for the maturation process of life. And for the son, once no longer a child, often that desire to nourish and protect is projected onto feelings for the parent—causing a shift in the power dynamics of familial love and responsibility. But for mothers, that need to take care of their child outlives its natural expiration date and becomes a pathological obsession. And with his latest feature, Child’s Pose, Calin Peter Netzer examines a scarred and possessive mother-and-son relationship.

Telling the story of successful Bucharest architect—played with brilliant force by Luminita Gheorghiu—we’re given the riveting tale of a mother desperately trying to protect her son after he causes deadly car accident. Well into his 30s and ungrateful of his mother’s affection and care, he attempts to thwart her obsessive ways, while she goes to extreme measures to ensure he stays out of jail. With Netzer’s fantastic ability to portray the quietly smoldering moments of life, he delivers a psychological drama that provides both a social commentary on Eastern European bourgeoisie and a biting exploration of familial conflict.

“It’s a film, I might say, that attempts, to convey states of mind, feelings, smoldering conflicts, desperate outbursts,” said Netzer. “In a word: a slice of life almost as authentic as a documentary.” And as we’re given a captivating look into their life, it’s almost as if we’re peering in those scared moments which only take inside the walls of the home—making it feel at once intrusive in its honesty and familiar even in its most foreign turns.

Last week, I spoke with Netzer about his own connections to the story, shooting the film digitally, and many meanings of its title.

The central theme of the film is the deep psychological relationship between mother and son, but the catalyst for the story is the initial accident—was that something you culled from real life?

At the beginning, Razvan and I, we wanted to make a film about the relationship between mother and son, and we realized in our discussion that we both have a dominating mother. So we had this common thing, and that was the starting point of this project—the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and a son.The character of Cornelia was built together from our discussion and our own experience with our mothers. From that, we created Cornelia as someone we knew very well, most of us. But then we got very much into the story with the accident, and that something that’s happening very often in Romania and that you see on TV. We needed a story like this, a bigger plot point, to construct the whole story around it.

Making the characters of the film members of the upper class, was that something integral to how you wanted to tell the story? And do you think the relationships would have differed if they were more of a working class family?

It was important. From the beginning I wanted to make a film that was different from the social point of view from the characters of other Romanian films of the New Wave.

In terms of the narrative, and as a storyteller, it makes sense to show their relationship from the mother’s point of view. But as sons yourself, was it interesting to write the character of the mother and impress your own experiences into her?

We decided to do the film from her point of view because she’s a dynamic character. She’s involved in things and she’s very active. And in a way, making the film was also therapeutic for me.

I really loved the scene of her birthday party. It was a great way to establish her as a character and show that free and loving side to her that’s usually covered in such a tough exterior. Also, there were so many people there of importance and she only cared about the one who wasn’t—her son.

It was very important from the beginning that she was obsessed with her son. And the scene of her birthday, yes, there were all these characters, people who were political and influential—it was important to show this high class society in Romania. In the script, there were actually scene we shot and cut out between Cornelia and her son before then. We cut it out because we cut out many things from the son, because we had a problem in the editing room with the character—if the son had more scenes it would bring the character of Cornelia down a little bit.

How did you go about casting the film? Did you have Luminita Gheorghiu in mind when writing?

When we wrote the script, I mentioned Luminita, because she’s very good. And many of the lines in the script are actually written for  her. But in the end, when I started the pre-production, I did a lot of casting to be sure she was the best. I wanted to find a fresher-faced actress because Luminita very well-known in Romania, she’s in very many films. But after two months of casting, I realized she was by far the best choice. That was it, and then after that we had only 30 days for shooting. I made the casting one year before so we had a lot of time for preparation and rehearsal. It was a very short time for shooting, so it was very difficult. We worked 14, 15 hours a day, it was a 120 pages long script. We had to be very prepared going on set.

In terms of how you wanted to focus the film aesthetically and the staging—how did you go about constructing that? You’ve mentioned that you wanted it to feel as authentic as a documentary, and indeed it was very observational while remaining so closely fixated on the characters’ bodies.

Well, we decided to shoot it on digital with two cameras. I gave a quite a lot of liberty to the DP to shoot it as they had at the beginning. I wanted them to tell me the story or the scene from their point of view—as if they were between the characters, like they were following them, a very 1970s documentary style. I wanted that from the beginning, and it was important that it looked very realistic. I’m surprised that it looks very good on digital, because this is the first time I didn’t work on film.

Did you find a large difference for you not shooting on film?

We would rehearse the whole scene and then make the movements. I think a lot of the rehearsals were actually shot, and at the end of the 30 days we had very much material. We were shooting almost everything and that kind of working, of giving the liberty to the DP and the cameraman, that gave a lot of liberty for the actors and their movement and action in the scene.

Something I found really interesting about the mother/son relationship was the juxtaposition between how much he resented her love and tried to thwart her affections and help, yet his actions were that of a child and he relied on her so heavily. Such as the scene when he has a fit because she bought him the wrong color nasal spray, as if he wasn’t an adult and couldn’t have purchased it for himself.

I wanted to show that he’s still dependent, from the emotional point of view, on his mother. He’s not a grown up man for his emotional age and he has this neurosis. It is a fight between his conscious and unconscious—his unconscious is the emotional part of the him, and the conscious is that he’s a grown up man and he can do things alone.

Were there any films you looked to for inspiration in terms of the tone of the film or the characters?

Maybe the Dogme 95 films from Lars von Trier, or some things made by Woody Allen, like Husbands and Wives. However, the rule on set was actually not to have a rule.

How did you happen upon this title? Of course, “Child’s Pose” alludes to the position of a parent to their child but the yoga pose of the same name does come to mind.

There was actually a scene where Cornelia does this yoga position—it was before she was going to the victim’s parents. We cut it out in the editing room because it was too long and we didn’t need it. But we kept the title because, at least in Romania, it has very many meanings. It can mean the positioning from child to their parent and other way around, it can mean the dead boy on the street and the positioning there—so it has a lot of meanings.

You’ve said that there’s no commercial cinema in Romania, so when you’re making a film do you imagine the international audience or who are you thinking it’s for?

At the beginning, I thought that it would be a festival film, but not really an audience film. I didn’t really think about it. But alas, it was the most successful box office Romanian film in the last 10, 15 years. So that was quite surprising. I think many people recognize themselves in the film, with mothers and sons, and that was surprising. I didn’t anticipate that at the beginning.

Has your mother seen the film?

Yes, she thought of it like a homage.