The Baby (1973): A Slight Phenomenon

Several months after first seeing it, it feels like The Baby has been an unassuming life lesson. I was in Brussels at the time and as chance would have it, a small film festival called Offscreen was taking place just across the street from my hotel. That’s as clear a sign as any, thought I, and made room in my oh-so-busy-wannabe-tourist schedule to go see something. High-Rise (2015) was premiering during my stay, but that felt too mainstream and potentially too busy, so through a process of elimination, I ended up with The Baby.

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So here’s the movie poster…in Spanish.

If ever using this expression was justifiable, this is the place: Oh. My. God.

You know you’ve got something special on your hands when the votes to reviews ratio on IMdB is below one hundred. Let me detail with some examples: Star Wars Episode VII has a ratio of 1:143; Captain America has a ratio of 1:256; Finding Dory has a ratio of 1:404; Finding Nemo has a ratio of 1:794.

The Baby’s ratio is 1:35.

Sure, it’s likely that the more mainstream a movie is, the higher the ratio is going to be, but c’mon! One in thirty five people rating the movie just felt the urge to write something about it, that says something. Perhaps this is a reasonable measure for cult status (Manos: The Hands of Fate 1:47; Morvern Callar 1:62; Irma Vep 1:99). Or maybe all it does is highlight how bat-shit-crazy in a totally fascinating way The Baby is.

First released in 1973 in limited theaters, the movie got revived in 2000, when it came out on DVD and – oh, the sweet days of the last millenium – VHS. It has all the makings of a TV movie, in terms of budget, cast and production value, not to mention narrative ambitions. This was all nicely laid out for the thirty or so viewers gathered to enjoy a late night masterpiece in both Flemish and French, with the backdrop of a run down, industrial looking cinema adding to the charisma of the moment (it is actually the picture in the header). I recall someone took their shoes off and that also added a little something to the place.

The story is deceptively simple: a social worker, Ann, goes to look out for the wellbeing of a ‘child’ in a house run by the three Wadsworth women, the matriarch and her two post-adolescent daughters. The twist is that the child, referred to as ‘Baby’, is a grown man behaving like a toddler. Encountered with a healthy dose of hostility, Ann tries to establish whether Baby really is mentally hampered, or whether he has been conditioned throughout his upbringing to remain totally dependent. And that’s the struggle.

To be honest, this plot outline does not do the movie any justice. But it would take a lot of the disbelief away if I went any further into things. Let’s just say that not much is at it seems and there’s a brutal, almost Tarantino-esque ending to the story, with a crapload more absurdity to it.And yet, in spite of its bizarre characters and their equally strange behavior, the movie comes together into a real spectacle, constantly one-upping itself and keeping the viewer guessing as to what crazy stuff will come next.

Beyond the implicit (perhaps involuntary? I don’t know) humour of the movie, it also bears a heavy cross and builds a dark story around the theme of child abuse. That’s part of why it’s so fascinating, because The Baby goes from drama, to comedy, to thriller, to horror in a seamless manner and actually gets away with it by the end, with some glorious twists to boot. Ruth Roman, who plays the matriarch, portrays an excellent villain and manages to ground some of the more laughable moments that might otherwise have just been too much.

I was saying something about a life lesson. When the lights came on, I have to admit to feeling dazzled. And I kept wondering why, beyond the inherent craziness of the movie. So I ruminated deeply and found a pattern to so many of the films that I really enjoy: the not knowing what’s going to happen. A big part of that is going into a cinema blind, so literally not knowing what the movie is about. It’s not very practical, but then again, most of my favourite memories throughout the years have been about things that were not planned and ended up surprising me. So perhaps less control, more flow, is that the lesson?

Any way, you now know perhaps too much about what a weird thing you should expect if you ever watch The Baby, but I hope that not enough to spoil the fun out of it. Just get some friends together, don’t tell them what they are about to witness, and enjoy the shit out of it.