Review: Postpartum terror besets Noémie Merlant in nightmarish ‘Baby Ruby’

A man and woman stand opposite each other in a kitchen.
Kit Harington and Noémie Merlant in the movie “Baby Ruby.”
(Magnet Releasing)

For all the ways the arrival of a newborn is sold as a grace-filled milestone in a birthing woman’s life, it’s also the less-heralded story of a strange interloper upending everything one knows. And in playwright Bess Wohl’s directorial feature debut, the postpartum freakout “Baby Ruby,” that “everything” includes the psychological well-being of the new mother, played by “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Noémie Merlant.

The signs indicate that we’re in a fertile time for female creators widening the storytelling purview of motherhood to explore its more taboo-busting areas and darker realities, marked by such disparate examples in tone, theme and experience as “The Babadook,” “The Lost Daughter,” and “Saint Omer,” and even eye-opening documentaries about the maternal health system like “Aftershock.”

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“Baby Ruby,” centered on the time just before and then mostly right after Merlant’s lifestyle entrepreneur character Josephine gives birth to the titular offspring, is a nightmare scenario, for sure: disorienting, tense, funny and scary. Much of its woolly suspense, however, derives from the clever hinge of discerning whether our protagonist is in a horror film with seemingly no escape, or an everyday black comedy for which she simply wasn’t equipped.


And yet tidily packaged preparation and stylish follow-through is Josephine’s brand as we’re first introduced to this influencer star of her own food, travel and fashion site for the modern woman. With her well-promoted pregnancy delivering for her company (“Throwing Your Perfect DIY Baby Shower”), and husband Spencer (handsomely attentive Kit Harington) playing the supportive partner, Jo is as confident as possible that mommyhood is one more project she’ll spin into self-actualizing, readily marketable gold.

The indignities of a hard labor are the first cracks in that veneer, followed by bouts of lost time, visions, irritable defensiveness and a shifting alertness whose default emotions are fear and worry. (Did the dog eat the baby? Is Ruby’s incessant wailing a sign of something wrong?) Her house is a mess — not to mention possibly child-dangerous — and a haggard, sagging Jo still hasn’t gotten around to taking the perfect baby photo her fans are craving. So what’s the secret to these relaxed, toned young neighborhood moms with such serene infants? “Trust your instincts,” one of them, Shelley (an effective Meredith Hagner), cheerily tells Jo.

Those reflexes, though, take her to some harrowing places (and some inhibition-loosening ones), which Merlant, with her serious eyes and game physicality, gives expressively feral life to. Wohl augments it all visually with the occasional eerily-slow zoom or split-personality touch like mirror images and shadows that move when Jo herself is standing still, while cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez’s chilly naturalism transitions nicely to those tweaked states of distrust and isolation.

As evidence mounts in her mind that something is dreadfully wrong, at the same time she’s told her feelings are perfectly normal, Jo begins to suspect everything from the willful power of Ruby’s actions — she bites?! — to the motives of her husband, her doting mother-in-law Doris (Jayne Atkinson), and those beatific, beckoning stroller-jogging moms. The monsters are everywhere, it seems, but also, as Wohl never forgets to remind us throughout, so is a kind of organic, messy protectiveness, the thing that may just get her through it.

In its empathy-driven terror and ghoulish wit — including the Chekhov’s-gun rule hilariously applied to the placenta — “Baby Ruby” won’t be for everyone, although it only ever feels steeped in the honesty of experience, which, according to the press materials, was partly Wohl’s own. (Although hopefully much less bloody, hallucinatory and dread-filled.) Expectant/wannabe moms in particular may want to wait until they’re in the full thick of the “suck, swaddle and swing” before diving into this extreme take on a relatable feverishness. Because at the right time, “Baby Ruby” might just turn out to be strangely cathartic viewing.

'Baby Ruby'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Alamo Drafthouse, downtown Los Angeles; Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Laemmle Glendale; Harkins Chino Hills