Despite its title, writer/director Bess Wohl’s debut feature “Baby Ruby” isn’t primarily about the titular infant. It instead takes interest in her beleaguered mother Jo (Noémie Merlant of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), a lifestyle influencer for an online magazine. Her husband, Spencer (Kit Harington, “Game of Thrones”), is an “ethical” butcher. The pair, living in a lavish cabin, on paper, are the kind of seemingly perfect couple who put their idyllic baby pictures online to stir envy. They show the best parts of motherhood and sanitize the strain. But the bitter truth that Jo discovers is that you can’t hide the arduous parts.
The very idea of cinema showing the horrors and travails of motherhood isn’t new. It’s a trend gaining speed with films like “Kindred,” “Umma,” and “Lamb.” And yet, what separates Wohl’s film from everything else is how it dissects the performative exteriority of maternal life by using postpartum psychosis as a means to inflict the real-life terrors, paranoia, insomnia and hallucinations experienced by new mothers.
At its outset, “Baby Ruby” places the titular infant as the villain. Jo notices how in her womb, the baby seems to fight against her. These movements confuse Jo, but they do not alarm her. It’s not until Ruby is born and she refuses to stop crying, specifically around Jo, that she comes to believe that Ruby either hates or is disappointed in her. How can a baby feel animosity toward anyone, especially her mother? It’s a question Jo spends much of the movie turning over in head. And it becomes more pressing as the infant’s cries compound to cacophonous levels and she seemingly turns vicious: Ruby bites down hard on Jo while she breastfeeds her, drawing blood in the process. She also chomps on her ear. Jo tries to tell herself that this is normal behavior, and she’s experiencing typical anxieties, but the signs feel too real to ignore.
Still, the people in Jo’s life also try to reassure her: Spencer’s mother (Jayne Atkinson) shares stories about how her son was such a crier that she literally wanted to kill him with a kitchen knife. Jo meets a club of moms who support each other through group activities, such as jogging with strollers through the park, and sharing their difficult experiences. Each one of them admits to the emotional buckling happening underneath their pristine smiles. One mother, the cheery Shelly (Meredith Hagger), becomes a quick friend and confidant for Jo. And yet, Jo begins to distrust everyone in a movie that’s a cross between “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives.”
Wohl pulls the psychological horror components through with aplomb because “Baby Ruby” doesn’t reach for easy jump scares. It relies on the sturdy editing by Jin Lee, Arielle Sherman, and JC Bond to stitch together scenes that redouble Jo’s unreliable perspective concerning what she feels, what she sees, and the instincts that tell her to run and to protect a child she thinks despises her. At one point, the camera gazes out through a window to the woods outside Jo’s home. In between the frames we see a trio of Jo’s swaddling Ruby, trying ever so desperately to placate the blaring infant. The tryptic is the burden of motherhood set as a Renaissance painting. Similar to Jo, we never fully know what’s real and what isn’t. While that ambiguity can cause frustration, the repetition of certain actions functionally wears you down, it serves the purposes of Wohl well. The only element of Jo’s horror that doesn’t translate is the play too close to the vest subplot involving Shelly. It totally fizzles in its vagueness.
As Jo careens toward violence, Merlant makes this woman’s internal fears, external, in fascinating and uproarious ways. Because, once again, in the eyes of Jo, Ruby is the villain of this movie. And in Merlant’s performance — where her mind, body and soul feel as though they’re about to be ripped apart — you can see her anger rise in tandem with her exhaustion. Watching the French actress frantically shouting at an infant: “I’m not going to let you win,” is the height of “I felt that” in a surprisingly funny movie that features another scene where a woman throws a baby at a car.
Other than its surreal horror leanings, however, “Baby Ruby” is really about the lack of support for new mothers. Employers in America are still not required to offer paid maternity leave. The maternal mortality rates in the US are among the highest in the developed world. The veneer of maternal bliss is perpetuated by social media. And there is a silence, encouraged by a culture that too often discounts the work of raising a child as not a career, that makes open conversations surrounding the physical and mental afflictions experienced by mothers rare.
By the time of its discomforting, yet hopeful conclusion, Wohl weaves a mystery with so many illusions based in truth, that every fright is haunting and indelible. “Baby Ruby” is an audacious and riveting portrait of maternal life that’ll leave you wailing into the night.
“Baby Ruby” premiered in the Discovery section of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.