One pushed her husband into the Seine during a fit of jealous rage. Another refuses to speak. Others have been depressed for years. The rest have gone mad. These are the patients of Pitié-Salpêtrière, a neurological clinic in Paris, and the women at the heart of Mélanie Laurent’s The Mad Women’s Ball, a slightly uneven but still propulsive film.
Laurent’s latest work as a writer-director is Amazon’s first original French feature, and will bow on the streaming giant’s platform a few days after its TIFF premiere. Based on the novel of the same name by Victoria Mas, it tells the chilling story of a woman unjustly institutionalized by her family. It’s a smart and satisfying thriller bolstered by its attention to the misogynistic roots of modern psychiatry and the tension between God, science and the spiritual world.
The Mad Women’s Ball
The Bottom Line
A gripping, if uneven, look at the misogynistic roots of psychiatry.
Set in 1885, The Mad Women’s Ball opens with a funeral. Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge), a quick-witted and independent woman, stands among a sea of strangers gathered in a public square to mourn the death of French poet and novelist Victor Hugo. She’s not supposed to be there (her father prefers that she stay home), but Eugénie longs to be out in the world. Later, at dinner with her family, she lies about her whereabouts that day. The only person our young protagonist trusts with her desires and secrets, including the fact that she can speak to the dead, is her brother Théophile (played by the ineffable Benjamin Voisin).
The spirits speak to Eugénie at inconvenient times — when she’s reading with her brother or, as in the most recent instance, when she’s helping her grandmother (Martine Chevallier) get ready for bed. The spells, in which she’s seized by the presence of ghosts, are short but consuming. Her head begins to hurt, her hands tremble, her body shakes and her eyes roll back. Laâge, who starred in Laurent’s breakout as a helmer, Breathe, transforms in these scenes, playing each instance of the seizures with more restraint, recognizing when to emphasize the drama for the most chilling effect.
After Eugénie confides in her grandmother about her condition, the family commits her to Salpêtrière. There she comes under the care of Geneviève (Laurent), a stern nurse who assists Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet), the arrogant man who runs the clinic, and meets the group of fellow patients she will befriend. Of the bunch, Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), who was sent to the institution after finally speaking up about her uncle sexually abusing her, takes to Eugénie the best. The two form a partnership, somewhat reluctantly on Eugénie’s part, with Louise describing in detail how the place works, who is who, and her sexual relationship with Jules (Christophe Montenez), one of the clinic’s doctors.
Shocked and angry, Eugénie initially refuses to comply with the rules of the institution and takes every opportunity to insist that she does not belong at Salpêtrière. Her relationship with Geneviève, who believes unequivocally in the power of science, starts off rocky. It’s not until the spirit of the nurse’s dead sister begins communicating with Eugénie that their relationship thaws and Geneviéve begins to undergo her own transformation.
Most of The Mad Women’s Ball concerns larger questions of belief — whether the conflict is between science and faith or men and women. A majority of the patients have been sent to the clinic against their will, usually after divulging information that their families find unpleasant or showing emotion in ways deemed unacceptable. In other words, they are punished for not conforming to the restrictive rules society has set for women. Although the screenplay can be a bit heavy-handed at times, Laurent, who penned it with Chris Deslandes, does a fairly good job at teasing out these themes and their larger implications.
The more time Eugénie spends in Salpêtrière, the more she understands that the source of these women’s problems is not their minds but the men who run the clinic. Laurent and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis take great care to show what these women experience within the institution, and these scenes prove to be some of the most compelling in the film. Every day, the doctors subject their patients to distressing physical exams and radical treatments like hypnosis and ice baths. At the mercy of these graying figures who diagnose them as hysterical, the women have no true agency. Their minds begin to betray them, and they begin to develop coping mechanisms that the same doctors read as confirmation of their bogus diagnoses. Once that happens, the women are put on display for the scientific community at the clinic’s annual masked ball in December.
As Eugénie’s friendship with Geneviève deepens, the two begin to realize what they have in common. Taken by this young woman who challenges her to consider the possibility of a world beyond the readily visible, Geneviève begins to see the clinic’s cruelty, and vows to help Eugénie escape. It’s at this point that the film turns into a gripping thriller, following Geneviève, especially, as she devises a plan to free her new friend.
For the most part, The Mad Women’s Ball is an assuredly directed film, reflecting Laurent’s keen eye and her sensitivity in unpacking social issues. Yet there are moments when it lacks a necessary gracefulness. The overuse of its dramatic cello-heavy score begins to detract from tense moments, while certain scenes introduce unnecessary (and unaddressed) plot points. These can be frustrating tics that take away from the overall powerful cinematic experience. In fact, the film’s best moments are when it takes a quiet, more restrained approach to telling the harrowing stories of these unjustly treated women.