The Mad Women’s Ball, 2021.
Co-written and directed by Mélanie Laurent.
Starring Mélanie Laurent, Lou de Laâge, Emmanuelle Bercot, Benjamin Voisin, Cédric Khan, and Grégoire Bonnet.
A woman who is unfairly institutionalised in a Paris asylum plots to escape with the help of one of its nurses. Based on the novel “Le bal des folles” by Victoria Mas.
Mélanie Laurent must surely be one of the most below-the-radar multi-hyphenates working in film today; though undeniably best known for her performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, she’s also directed five films over the last decade – including Respire and Galveston – and her sixth is without doubt her most ambitious yet.
Adapted from Victoria Mas’ 2019 novel “Le bal des folles,” The Mad Women’s Ball takes place in 1885 Paris, where a young woman, Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge), finds herself encountering apparent spirits of the dead, for which her family has her committed to Pitié-Salpêtrière Asylum.
There, under the “care” of Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet), Eugénie and the asylum’s other women are dismissively diagnosed with dubious conditions such as hysteria, before being subjected to experimental therapies more akin to torture with no proven model of success.
Eugénie soon enough crosses paths with Genevieve (Laurent), one of the facility’s nurses who has a particular interest in Eugénie’s apparent supernatural abilities. The various narrative threads ultimately converge at the titular ball, where the patients of the asylum are dressed up for an annual dance with the well-to-do, oft-perverted men of high society.
While its earlier phases might suggest a quiet, slight, airy period drama about institutional misogyny, Laurent’s film turns out to be a good deal more slippery than that. Its initially slow, steady canter and ambiguous engagement with the possibly-supernatural nature of Eugénie’s condition ease audiences into a story which becomes progressively more horrifying and intense, examining ghosts of the past both figurative and maybe-literal.
But Laurent’s film is at it strongest when detailing the undeniably tangible ways in which men seek to control women, from more “subtle” put-downs – telling them to sit up straight, be quiet, look pretty, not make a fuss or, perhaps worst of all, “calm down” – to more outward means of pacification, namely institutionalising them and doping them up with laudanum.
Evidently, society of the era would rather throw any woman exhibiting “abnormal” behaviour in a draughty old building to rot rather than deal with their issues humanely – if they even are issues, that is. Then, they’re largely ascribed the lazy catch-all diagnosis of “hysteria” and paraded around in front of suited-up men to exhibit their conditions like sideshow attractions.
Laurent admirably pulls few punches with her matter-of-fact account of systemic abuse here. Eugénie and her fellow inmates are forced to endure myriad horrifying tortures; for one, “hydrotherapy,” where the women are left to soak nude in a tub full of ice water in an attempt to traumatise them into quietude.
Elsewhere there are invasive medical exams, bloodletting, and the “eclipse game,” whereby the victim is placed in solitary confinement in total darkness, being only periodically given a glimpse of daylight. That’s without even getting into doctors using their station to sexually abuse the women they’re tasked with caring for.
Naturally, anyone with a humane bone in their body is wondering how any of this is designed to make anyone better. The answer, of course, is that it isn’t; it’s intended to break down the souls of these women to the extent that they no longer become outspoken “problems” but malleable objects. And while the titular ball, which serves as the film’s finale, perhaps offers up a slightly tidy solution to Eugénie’s predicament, it does nothing to undermine the harrowing portrait of a society keen to do anything to women except listen to them.
Though the script doesn’t have too much time for subtlety, resulting in some occasionally on-the-nose dialogue, there is an impressive nuance to its overall account of the period. Not every man in the movie is a cartoonish villain; Eugénie’s brother Théophile (Benjamin Voisin) genuinely believed he was doing the right thing for his sister by having her sent to the asylum, and the asylum’s female nurses, particularly the troubled Jeanne (Emmanuelle Bercot), are also capable of their own monstrous behaviour.
Laurent asks a lot from her cast here – including herself – and they uniformly rise to the occasion. As Eugénie, Lou de Laâge is a towering picture of righteous rage against adversity, aided by the compelling and distinct ensemble of women incarcerated alongside her. One can certainly argue that there’s a slightly excess focus on Laurent’s nurse, especially in the saggier mid-section of the movie, but the actress delivers a fittingly multi-faceted depiction of a woman sympathetic to those she cares for if also an undeniable instrument of an abusive hierarchy.
This is a robustly staged film throughout which makes the probably-smart decision not to break with a clearly defined reality at any point. Nicolas Karakatsanis’ stately cinematography is complimented by composer Asaf Avidan’s lurching string score, providing a firm scaffold for the uneasy drama on-screen, though the more generically stirring piano motifs do feel a little trite.
The Mad Women’s Ball is a film that wants you to appreciate the sins of our collective past and recognise their legacy in the modern world, given that misogyny has hardly gone anywhere. Mélanie Laurent’s gruelling period drama powerfully depicts the systemic means through which society has historically disempowered and abused women, many of which continue unabated today.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.