A boy’s best friend is his mother, we heard from the proprietor of the Bates Motel. And that’s what domineering socialite Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu) – the central figure in Calin Peter Netzer’s superb melodrama – thinks her relationship should be with her grown, hypochondriac son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache). He’s been distant from the family for a while, and Cornelia has hardened, at least outwardly, into a rigid, chain-smoking taskmaster, though she’d surely deny it, in between all those tossed-back Cointreau shots. Then one night, Barbu is involved in a horrible car accident that leaves a young boy dead, giving Cornelia the chance to reassert herself in her son’s life, with devastating consequences.
If you’re familiar with Romanian cinema you’ll know that Gheorghiu is one of its key onscreen figures, primarily a supporting player in fest favorites like The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). It’s wonderful to see her in a leading role, especially one as meaty as this. Her Cornelia is a hybrid of a Joan Crawford tyrant and a Gena Rowlands neurotic, and you watch enthralled as she uses every trick in the high-society playbook to manipulate her family, the police and even Barbu’s girlfriend to her own emotionally greedy (and needy) ends. Netzer’s jittery, handheld aesthetic complements the character’s icily fragile facade, which thaws over the course of the movie. The more Cornelia attempts to woo her child back into her overly protective clutches, the more he disconnects. A complex final scene – in which everyone finally lets the tears flow – only deepens the sense that well-meaning mother love can be as poisonous as it is nourishing.