Baby Ruby

(Bess Wohl, USA, 2022)


There are films and TV dramas that illustrate psychological syndromes – the series The Act (2019), about a notorious real-life case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, is merely one of many textbook examples – and then there are those that shy away from affixing a label on so-called aberrant behaviour, preferring to err (wisely or otherwise) on the side of the generally messy complexity of human beings.

Evident in this distinction is also a shift in history and mores – not to mention the ever-shifting sands of medical and psychiatric diagnosis, as Rachel Aviv’s’s non-fiction book Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us (2022) so vividly demonstrates.

When filmmakers of the 1960s and ‘70s (such as Karel Reisz & David Mercer with Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment [1966], Frank & Eleanor Perry with Diary of a Mad Housewife [1970] or John Cassavetes & Gena Rowlands with A Woman Under the Influence [1974]) presented portraits of troubled, even ‘mad’ characters, a large dose of empathy and identification went streaming toward anyone branded dysfunctional, a misfit, an outsider, a loner. The inability to function or fit in society was turned around to a critique (R.D. Laing-style) of society itself – not an individualised diagnosis of sociopathy, narcissism, delusion, or whatever.

Sometimes, no doubt, this hippie/countercultural tendency, when faced with some real, dramatic and sometimes fatal problems of daily coping, went too far and overlooked too much. But the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. Today we live in an age of (as it were) Syndrome Syndrome. Tagging the “correct” syndromic label, and providing the web link to a handy checklist of Diagnostical-and-Statistical-Manual-derived symptoms, tends to rule both private and professional spheres. People (stereo)type themselves, type others, and let themselves be typed by vested authorities in this way. And meanwhile, the “self-help” industry, in publishing and elsewhere, merrily thrives. It’s an abiding problem.

It's not until quite late into Baby Ruby that a doctor off-screen-mumbles the clinical term post-partum depression. But the film does not lock itself into that diagnosis upfront. Until that point of medical utterance, we have witnessed Jo (Noémie Merlant from the vastly overrated Portrait of a Lady on Fire [2019]) – online “influencer” with a popular column on daily feminine culture and experience – undergo a range of states in her first-time-mother role, some of them entirely valid and understandable: anger, exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, disenchantment … on a continuum that leads all the way to dreams, hallucinations and apparitions, a number of which prove hard for her to distinguish from real events.

Alas, the film itself cannot stop anybody reading a flat synopsis online before watching it, the spectator thereby being alerted to the assumption that the story is “about” post-partum depression – illustrative, syndromic and symptomatic as usual. But Baby Ruby is more interesting than that.

Like Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Baby Ruby – the directorial debut of playwright Bess Wohl – intends to tread on dangerous, unspeakable ground: the thought that mothers might want, at times, to get rid of, or even kill, their new-born babes. (This “Medea Syndrome” is also, in part, the subject of the contemporaneous Saint Omer [2022] by Alice Diop.)

Ruby, you see, just won’t stop crying – at least when Mom is on her watch. But Jo is surrounded by the predictable parade of homily-spouting, caring folk and their banalities: “all babies cry”, “she really loves you, you know, you’re her mother”, “it’s hard for mothers, but you’ll get used to it” … We know that Jo is really in trouble the moment she picks up and desperately flips through the self-help book that she earlier waived away (“I can do it!”). The syndrome-industry has, at last, got to her.

There is a Gothic-horror touch of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in the conspiratorial way that the chummy-creepy community around Jo (especially a jolly team of outdoorsy workout-Moms whose babies, suspiciously, we never glimpse) is depicted.

The is-it-real-or-isn’t-it fugue state of disturbed characters has become commonplace movie fare since at least David Lynch’s masterpiece Lost Highway (1997). Wohl places this spectacle on a continuum of cinematic allusion that guides us back from Lynch to Maya Deren – particularly in its haunting shadow-world finale – and mixes that with a keen grasp of topical feminine and feminist cultures. (Jo’s hubby Spencer [Kit Harrington]) tries hard to be a Sensitive New Age Guy but ends up exuding a sinister, proto-patriarchal, Cassavetes-via-Polanski air.)

Visual and aural affectations fill the piece: domestic frames with multiple versions of Jo pacing about; psychedelic mirror-splitting down the middle; plenty of surging and sudden-stopping sound-effects on the soundtrack. Some of this is a mite chintzy, but works in well enough with the online-mania ambience.

Baby Ruby, with its shuffled grab-bag of generic templates, is best noted for the way it avoids a single, simple paradigm of diagnostic interpretation. It steps, variously, into the garb of inherent madness, of psychic mythology, of culture-commentary, of victim-horror, and of puzzle-solving mystery. There’s a constant equivocation between purely personal and wider social frameworks of understanding. The ending offers, in some sense, a resolution … while keeping with the mystery. It’s a promising entrée for Wohl.

© Adrian Martin 14 February 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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