Jo (played by Noémi Merlant of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is a successful influencer expecting her first child. Her website “Love, Josephine” has verticals on beauty, fashion, food and travel. Somehow this website has allowed her to build a business with multiple employees, all of whom congratulate her at a baby shower they throw for her before her maternity leave begins. Is it maternity leave when you own the company? This story grapples with the notion of privilege right upfront. Josephine lives in a big, beautiful house in a wooded enclave with her husband Spencer (Kit Harington) who works as an artisanal butcher. She’s thrilled about her pregnancy, upbeat and cheerful, prepping her blog for the baby’s imminent arrival and decorating the house with a handmade banner that says “Welcome Baby Ruby.”
Then one day she runs into Shelly (Meredith Hagner), a young local mom with a baby in a stroller who gushes over Jo’s pregnant belly. The chance encounter turns a bit odd when Jo attempts to see the baby under the stroller blanket and is met with a harsh rebuke. The film’s tone immediately shifts: Jo is spooked and obsessed with what may or may not be under that blanket. This immediately reminded me of a trope first introduced in the classic horror film Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which many viewers imagined they’d seen a baby (born of a human mother, fathered by the Devil) with unusual eyes, teeth, face, etc., when in fact the baby is never shown on screen. Indeed, this film slyly references a number of horror films, including The Stepford Wives and possibly The Witch. But the emphasis isn’t on the supernatural: the terror is all too real and is only beginning.
Jo’s eagerness to become a mother is abruptly undercut when she goes into labor and her experience of giving birth is portrayed as a painful, confusing, bloody fever dream. But Baby Ruby, when she arrives, is beautiful and perfect. Her ears stick out a little, she has an incredibly expressive face and lovely pale blue eyes. She also cries. A lot.
Josephine and Spencer are clearly not prepared for how much time, energy and attention go into the raising of this little human. Their relative privilege and financial comfort is not, the film suggests, sufficient to protect them from the trials of being parents to a newborn. Jo’s exhaustion and frazzled nerves cause her to start having disturbing nightmares and strange imaginings. Her assistant worries the blog and website are being neglected. Spencer and his mother (who is there to help out) think Jo “needs a rest.” Jo’s doctor suspects Jo might be delusional (shades of Dr. Sapirstein here in a great performance by Reed Birney). Meanwhile Baby Ruby is still there, demanding to be fed, cuddled, comforted. Played by twins, this baby, well, let’s say it’s quite a performance, and unlike many films with an infant at the center, no doll doubles are used: the baby’s tiny fleshy body is centered in every scene, creating a vibe of fragility and danger. Noémi Merlant is excellent, with a light touch of humor balancing Jo’s descent into post-partum delirium.
The film’s knife-edge balance of horror and reality is effectively rendered by filmmaker Bess Wohl (Irreplaceable You), and editor Jin Lee (Ma), with a tensive score by Erik Friedlander (Thoroughbreds). Despite its setting, in a wealthy community among people of means, Baby Ruby boldly exposes the universal and primal fear that accompanies giving birth, and the general lack of support and understanding faced by new mothers.