The Mad Women’s Ball: A hideous carnival in the hospital

Review: Mélanie Laurent directs and stars in this portrait of 19th-century misogyny

Lou de Laâge and Mélanie Laurent in The Mad Women's Ball

Film Title: The Mad Women's Ball

Director: Mélanie Laurent

Starring: Lou de Laâge, Mélanie Laurent, Benjamin Voisin, Emmanuelle Bercot, Cédric Kahn, César Domboy, Coralie Russier, Martine Chevallier, Grégoire Bonnet

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 121 min

Fri, Sep 17, 2021, 05:00

   

The idea of hysteria as a patriarchal constraint was scathingly explored as long ago as 1842 in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper. The sixth film by actor-director Mélanie Laurent – who was memorably introduced to Anglophone audiences as the determined Jewish avenger of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – stages a thrilling battle between the individual and mechanisms of discipline, a conflict that keeps the curveballs coming.

For one thing, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge), the film’s heroine, sees dead people. 
A high-born, well-educated young woman living through the Belle Époque, Eugénie enjoys the company of her equally quick-witted and adoring brother Theophile (Summer of 85’s Benjamin Voisin), and clandestine visits to Montmartre dives where she reads poetry away from the glare of her disapproving father (Cédric Kahn).

Her initial, terrifying glimpses into the spirit world would certainly have played well with fashionable Parisians during the 1880s, but when Eugénie confides as much to her grandmother, her family swiftly packs her off to the notorious Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, where “hysterical” women are hypnotised and made to perform for male doctors and students at the behest of Dr Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet).

Using her supernatural and irrational gift, Eugénie manipulates her jailors, particularly the stern yet tragic Geneviève (Laurent). But will she ever be free of a place where madness is presumed to be contagious?

Working from the novel by Victoria Mas, Laurent turns the event of the title into a hideous carnival. Le bal des folles, to use the original French, is an annual evening for which the incarcerated women dress up to be leered at, sneered at and, in one instance, raped by well- heeled visiting gentlemen.

It might be argued that the film – the first French-language production backed by Amazon Studios – is far too pretty and squeaky-clean in its representation of a 19th-century institution, but it’s never less than disconcerting, for all the hygienic loveliness. The director and star deftly juggles social commentary, genre tension, spookiness and some fabulous period costumes (courtesy of designer Maïra Ramedhan Levi).

Laurent makes a great scene partner for frequent collaborator de Laâge and there are terrific supporting turns from Lomane de Dietrich as an unfortunate fellow patient and Martine Chevallier as a duplicitous grandma.

Streaming from September 17th