The Mad Women’s Ball, 2021.
Directed by Mélanie Laurent.
Starring Mélanie Laurent, Lou de Laâge, Emmanuelle Bercot, Benjamin Voisin, Lauréna Thellier, Grégoire Bonnet, Cyril Kuhnholtz, Martine Chevallier, Vincent Nemeth, Cédric Kahn, André Marcon, Lomane de Dietrich, Christophe Montenez, Coralie Russier, Valérie Stroh, Valentine Cadic, Alice Barnole, Martine Schambacher, and Morgan Perez.
A woman who is unfairly institutionalized at Paris asylum plots to escape with the help of one of its nurses. Based on the novel ‘Le Bal des Folles‘ by Victoria Mas.
In 19th century France among a high society family, two siblings contain and share individual secrets. Théophile (Benjamin Voisin) is urged by his family to marry a woman of similar status but is discreetly gay, something only his sister knows. Perhaps they have a great deal of trust for one another given their tight bond, but it’s presumably easier for Théophile to open up regarding his hidden life considering her sister Eugénie (an impressive Lou de Laâge) possesses an ability also looked down upon by the era’s civilization; she is a clairvoyant.
Co-written and directed by French treasure Mélanie Laurent (adapting Victoria Mas’ novel of the same name alongside screenwriter Christophe Deslandes), this is a fascinating first act juxtaposition in The Mad Women’s Ball that, in some respects, is more compelling than the insane asylum horrors following it. And while I don’t expect the narrative to follow Théophile once Eugénie is cast out from the rest of her family, the setup to this dynamic feels underwritten and wasted. The abandonment of the plot threat is so jarring it wouldn’t surprise me if Mélanie Laurent added the character into this version, only to realize she had nowhere to go with him too late.
Nevertheless, one night while assisting her grandmother, Eugénie locates a thought-to-be-lost heirloom. When her grandmother asks how she could find it, Eugénie comes clean with the truth about communicating with spirits. The next day, Eugénie’s mother wakes her up in the morning while also giving some odd and concerned looks, subsequently ordering her to get ready for an event for her brother and his inevitable bride to be (someone she doesn’t see eye to eye with and has a habit of rubbing the wrong way, especially with dismissive remarks about an upcoming ballroom ceremony she perceives as degrading to women). Much to her shock, her father (and brother, against his will) are dropping her off at the infamous Salpêtrière asylum, fearing what her gift will do to the family’s reputation.
Within minutes, Eugénie is stripped naked and dehumanized, labeled crazy. Also disturbing, Doctor Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) convinces those around him (including a staff of women who are buying into his abhorrent scientific studies) that his hypnotherapy methods are the way to know when dealing with “hysterical” women. It’s also clear that a good amount of these women are not as cuckoo as the doctor would have everyone believe; some of them are outcasts from their family, admitted for misunderstood crimes, mentally challenged, or suffer from severe trauma usually related to sexual abuse. Eugénie quickly befriends a woman named Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), abused and falling for blatant lies that a man named Jules (Christophe Montenez) will propose to her and take her away from her all this. Naturally, she’s eager to know when.
The answer to that question is the titular annual Mad Women’s Ball, an event that once existed in real life. Such an occasion is meant to clash with Eugénie’s detest, now seemingly the only opportunity for a night of fun albeit under twisted and humiliating circumstances. One of the most memorable shots in the film is an overhead perspective of the patients practically bumping and knocking into each other to get to a crate of dresses first, staking their claims. In a place of inhumane torture, this is what passes for exciting, even if the whole ordeal is just meant for the rest of society to make a mockery of them.
With that in mind, it’s frustrating that The Mad Women’s Ball isn’t interested in taking a closer look at these women individually, who all seem to have horrific stories and are worth getting to know more about. Instead, the narrative is primarily focused on punishing Eugénie for not falling into line (there is a sequence of cruel hypnotherapy that might cause shivers just watching), doing anything possible to cling on to her dignity (refusing to let nurses aid her in walking), and backing down from asserting her ability to communicate with spirits. Eventually, she starts to speak with dead loved ones of nurses in situations that, while acted believably, always solely feel as if they exist for convenient plot purposes. Although, the different reactions from nurses are enough to ensure that the plot device doesn’t become stale.
Among those head caretakers is Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent pulling triple duty here), who has the most understanding reaction, especially considering a desire to communicate with a sister she tragically lost. In a move that works for the complicated bond developing between the two but also takes away from the more intriguing terrors of asylum life and the upcoming ball, Geneviève is given a decent amount of solo screen time, granting a look into her private life living with her father.
Even if it’s all inherently silly, the performances from Lou de Laâge and Mélanie Laurent are grounded and cut deep enough to make everything from the torture to the inevitable daring escape (with predictable results) gripping. One character is desperately trying to hold onto her sense of self while the other is questioning her work at the asylum. So, that’s one dynamic The Mad Women’s Ball adequately captures, whereas the rest is either tossed aside or mismanaged. It’s also tough to recommend a movie where the central plot mechanic of talking to dead souls lacks naturalism and seemingly exists only to push that plot forward.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com