Guest Author: Erin Wilson
R | 87 min | David Farr | UK | 2015
David Farr’s The Ones Below (2015) has much in common with recent parent-horror treasures like The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) and Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala and Veronica Franz, 2014). While viewing each one, I spent much of my time thinking: “This film is doing a great job making parenting look like a terrifying nightmare.” The Ones Below is a film about the myriad of horrors facing modern mothers. With understated intensity, Farr documents the struggles of new parenting, and the potentially horrifying consequences of the persistent scrutiny that mothers endure.
The film follows a woman named Kate (Clémence Poésy) and her husband, Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), in the last months of her first pregnancy and first months of motherhood. “The Ones Below” are their new downstairs neighbors, Jon (David Morrissey) and Theresa (Laura Birn). Like Kate, Theresa is in the second trimester of pregnancy. In spite of that shared experience, these women could not be more different. Costuming and makeup choices highlight the contrast. Theresa’s appearance is always pristine. Her outfits are bright and coordinated, often complementing her husband’s, and her makeup is always immaculate. She looks more like a model in an ad for maternity clothing than an average pregnant woman. While Kate is certainly beautiful, she seems downright frumpy by comparison. She wears oversized clothes, her hair is usually pulled back in a low bun, and her makeup is minimal. Kate’s experience of pregnancy is uncomfortable, exhausting, and sometimes not very flattering. Theresa is what popular media would have us believe pregnancy is: a beautiful woman joyfully enjoying her pregnancy, glowing at all times.
These women are dramatically different in their attitudes towards pregnancy. During dinner at Kate and Justin’s apartment, Jon asks why they haven’t had children until now. Justin explains that they were unsure of whether or not they wanted to have children. Both Jon and Theresa are taken aback, particularly when Kate clarifies that it was she who had doubts. Theresa seems both shocked and appalled, saying “I’ve always known I wanted a child” and “until I was pregnant, I didn’t know why I was alive.”
While we don’t see Kate’s life before pregnancy, we have evidence that her identity is not dependent on her status as a wife or mother. She has a career and many friends, and she dated before starting a life with Justin. While this certainly makes her more realistic, it also makes her an object of suspicion and antipathy to Theresa and Jon. Later, when an angry Theresa tells Kate “you don’t deserve that thing inside you,” it is implicitly for this reason. A woman who hasn’t always seen herself as a potential mother is unworthy of becoming one.
The night of the dinner-party ends tragically when Theresa tumbles down the stairs, following a perfect storm of unfortunate decisions. Before dinner, Justin refuses to change the entryway light and won’t allow Kate to climb a ladder to replace it herself. Although Theresa “doesn’t drink anymore,” we see her sneaking several sips from multiple glasses of wine. Jon, meanwhile, left his and Theresa’s shoes outside the front door of the apartment. Theresa, a bit tipsy, is unsteady on her feet. Without the light, she doesn’t see the shoes or the cat coming in. Jon, then, refuses to call a doctor for her. Even before tragedy strikes, the dinner is quite tense, largely because of Jon and Theresa’s uncomfortable dynamic. Their baby, we’re told, is “a miracle” after seven years of trying to get pregnant, following Jon’s first marriage to a beautiful woman who “couldn’t have children.” Theresa seems uneasy all evening. She drinks wine only when Jon isn’t in the room, nervously sipping and trembling. She admits to Kate that pregnancy is tiring, but does so in an anxious whisper that Jon won’t hear.
While Jon’s domineering presence is undeniable, another voice clearly controls Theresa. She goes swimming but tells Kate she doesn’t particularly like it. She goes because “they say it’s great for pregnancy.” Kate, too, invokes the advice of “they,” telling Theresa that “they say” you can have a glass of wine with a meal during pregnancy. Whoever “they” are, they apparently know better than Kate or Theresa. In both Kate and Theresa’s worlds, “they” dictate the dos and don’ts of pregnancy and, as a result, lay claim to partial ownership over pregnant women’s bodies.
Unsurprisingly, Theresa and Jon blame Kate and Justin for the miscarriage. Justin’s insistence that this was an accident is met with Jon’s claim that “accident implies that nothing could have been done.” Justin then implicates Theresa’s drinking, the shoes, and Jon’s refusal of medical attention. Jon is fixated on the light. The accusations hurled in this encounter are all, incidentally, true. They’re all culpable, but it shouldn’t surprise those of us who’ve spent more than ten minutes on social media that resignation to accidental tragedy is rare. We live in an era in which accidents are often not accepted. Instead, tragedies are publically dissected and analyzed until “fault” can be assigned. What we see in Theresa and Jon’s apartment is a reenactment of the discussions that many of us are accustomed to seeing on Twitter or Facebook in the days and weeks following any highly-publicized tragedy.
Paradoxically, Theresa seems to accept, eventually, that this was a tragic accident, even as she and Jon plot to make Justin believe Kate has postpartum psychosis, frame Kate for a murder-suicide, and abduct baby Billy to raise as their own. This is not imagined, though, as an act of vengeance. Theresa seems genuinely to like and sympathize with the exhausted and overwhelmed Kate. Their plan perfectly executed, Theresa leans over a dying Kate and calmly says: “It’s much better this way.” In the end, the motive is simply what’s purportedly “best for the child,” with Theresa believing that her polished lifestyle is the appropriate setting for parenting. The film ends in an eerily colorful and sunny scene, reminiscent of The Stepford Wives’ uncanny suburbia. Theresa and Jon have Billy, renamed Peter, in their new, perfectly landscaped garden. The picture of perfect parenthood has come to life; the better parents won.
It is a strange sort of kismet that The Ones Below was recommended to me the same week as Harambe the gorilla was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo when a toddler managed to slip away from his mother and into the gorilla exhibit. While the zoo staff certainly faced scrutiny, arguably the greatest target of media and certainly social media criticism and commentary was the boy’s mother. The woman has been threatened, she’s been the subject of spiteful memes and tweets, and was briefly under investigation by the Cincinnati police for negligence.
As we have what my parents called “armchair coaches,” we now also have “laptop parents,” who, via the Internet, have free reign to tell strangers how pregnancy and parenthood ought to be through “mommy-blogs” and reactionary posts. In The Ones Below, Farr imagines what might happen if a laptop parent came out from behind a screen and emerged from the door below your own.
Erin Wilson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri and is a Visiting Affiliate Assistant Professor of literature at Loyola University Maryland. Her research and writing concerns 19th-century British literature, medical humanities, horror studies, and representations of the body in literature and film. Erin runs a blog, Night of the Spoiler, in which she spoils movies so that her friends who don’t get out much can pretend they’ve seen them. She can be followed on Twitter at @benadrowsy.