Postpartum OCD is a real-life condition worthy of horror films. New moms fight off intrusive thoughts about someone killing or stealing their baby — or killing their baby themselves — and it’s surprisingly common. Since some of the best genre films play off of our ingrained paranoia, writer-director David Farr has capitalized on this maternal mental illness, using it as the basis for his thriller The Ones Below. If women weren’t already anxious about motherhood, they would be after watching this.
Kate (Clémence Poésy) and her husband, Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), dwell upstairs in a two-level duplex. Kate’s pregnant and unsure of herself, and she quickly latches onto the new housewife downstairs, Theresa (Laura Birn), who’s radiant in her own pregnancy. Tension brews between the two flaxen-haired women at a swimming pool, as Kate watches the free-spirited Theresa with an intensity verging on the erotic. In moments like this, Farr is able to capture the thrilling I-love-you-but-I-want-to-kill-you-and-become-you dynamic that sometimes plays out between women. But these scenes also do double duty, because it’s not yet clear who the “villain” will be.
We find out at a dinner party. Theresa’s controlling husband, Jon (David Morrissey), steps into Kate and Justin’s apartment with such menacing presence, shrouded in shadows, that he seems a physical omen of bad things to come. This and an ensuing scene with all four players are so tense that I wanted to applaud with admiration; Farr prods from his actors a spectacle of anxiety with searing dialogue and pregnant pauses (no pun intended).
Drawing contrast between the two couples, Farr depicts Kate in chilling blues, the couple’s apartment barely lit and cramped, where you can feel the dust even if you can’t see it. Meanwhile, Theresa and Jon’s garden apartment is something out of a sunny Los Angeles lifestyle magazine — manicured and warm. As Theresa and Jon deal with the loss of their baby, Kate watches them in their garden, catching glimpses of truly odd behavior. But it’s like the Looney Tunes frog, who appears as dead to most but sings and dances for his owner: Only Kate can see it.
After she delivers her son, Kate unravels, as Justin pushes her away, frustrated by her neediness and lack of decorum around their neighbors. The baby’s cry echoes through the tomblike apartment, but when the calm, golden neighbors downstairs interject, taking the child for walks and picnics, Kate’s anxiety and psychosis are only more apparent in juxtaposition. Kate feels guilty that despite not really wanting a baby to begin with, she would be blessed with one, while Theresa and Jon tried for so long to no avail. But that guilt is slowly replaced with a maternal duty to protect her child.
The easy comparison to make would be Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, because both focus on a gaslighted mother descending into madness, but there are also shades of a more subdued Babadook, or even a more stylized The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. It’s the tension between Kate and Theresa, however — especially in the earlier scenes — that gives freshness and nuance to The Ones Below. Unfortunately, the tone dissolves into something less compelling with a detached, matter-of-fact reveal at the end. It’s something you might see in the myriad movies adapted from Patricia Highsmith novels — not bad, just probably not belonging in this particular film. Despite that, The Ones Below demonstrates true artistry, with sharp dialogue and the actors to carry it, a perfect pleasure for those who want to dwell in their deepest fears.