The debut feature-length film from playwright Bess Whol, Baby Ruby begins as an idyllic venture into motherhood bathed in pink garland, frosting, and champagne. Whol’s depiction of motherhood once the afterglow of pregnancy fades is bold and riveting. We’re introduced to the harsher realities of having a baby through a landscape of uncontrollable anguish, dread, and unease.
French mother-to-be, influencer, vlogger, and entrepreneur, Josephine (Noémie Merlant), likes to be in control and shuns the idea that a baby will change her carefully scripted life. The appearance of perfection must be maintained at all times. However, Ruby’s arrival begins to fracture Josephine both mentally and physically. Her unraveling is accompanied by a tense and ominous score of sharply plucked string instruments by composer Erik Friedlander.
Sleep deprivation, body dysmorphia, constant crying, separation anxiety, and losing her sense of self — Josephine is the portrait of a woman reaching her nervous breaking point. Ruby is an intruder and Josephine senses that she is a threat. In an intense moment of stress and anger, she says to her husband Spencer (Kit Harington), “Don’t you understand that she’s killing me?” She believes Ruby is her adversary, challenging her sanity and patience.
Merlant is absolutely stunning. She delivers an ostensibly effortless performance, perfectly evoking Josephine’s acute neurosis and exhaustion. Every movement, facial expression, and emotion is convincingly conveyed and emotional intensity is truly unsettling.
Jayne Atkinson is wonderful as the insufferable grandmother, Doris, who has an authentic and poignant moment with Josephine, delivering a monologue about one of motherhood’s darker truths. “It’s hell. I told you about when Spencer was a baby … back in my day, men didn’t do anything. I was all alone. And everybody kept saying, wasn’t I so happy? Wasn’t my baby a miraculous thing? And I, I felt so guilty. Because of course, I loved him, but also, I hated him.” She continues and it develops into this effective moment of understanding between them. When Josephine asks her to stop, Doris says, “Yes, and that’s the problem. We can’t talk about these things. Not even to each other. We can’t admit it.” Their brilliantly written and directed exchange is truly at the heart of the film’s message about the “horrors” of motherhood.
Josephine's fear causes her to become two halves of a fractured whole. The loving and protective mother, and the frustrated, angry, and impatient woman, desperately trying to retain control. She’s forced to rediscover herself and reclaim her life while making room for the chaos that comes with having a child.
Baby Ruby is an incredibly fearsome, painful, and unnerving thriller. It’s so affecting and relatable, aided by tense cinematography and editing. Whol shows immense promise with her outstanding directorial debut. It’s absolutely stunning from beginning to end and a shocking and truthful portrait of postpartum depression and its accompanying psychosis.