Centred around the infamous Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital during the reign of Jean-Martin Charcot in the late 19th century, The Mad Women’s Ball (or Le Bal des folles in its native french, 2021), written, directed, and starring the terrific Mélanie Laurent (who audiences will recognise as Shoshanna from Inglorious Basterds or as Two from 6 Underground), is a compelling and gripping period drama, adapted from the critically acclaimed 2019 novel from Victoria Mas of the same name.
The film focuses on Eugénie Cléry (played by a mesmerising Lou de Laâge), a wealthy and defiant woman who is desperate to experience the world around her through books and exploration, a world that to her feels as tight and restricting as a corset (more on that later). We quickly come to learn that Eugénie has the ability to communicate with spirits, in several gripping sequences that would not feel out of place in Hereditary (2018), which keep the audience on edge for the entire first act, unsure of where the story is headed.
The film turns as Eugénie’s family discovers her abilities and, out of fear, admits her to the famous hospital, in the care of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) and head nurse Geneviève Gleizes (Mélanie Laurent). Based on previous expectation of films and novels set in psychiatric wards, we assume Geneviève will be the antagonising presence of the film, but is quickly apparent that the relationship and bond between Geneviève and Eugénie will be the driving force of the film moving forward.
It is in this two-hander that the film truly excels, with Laurent and Cléry playing off each other tremendously with a quiet electricity only the best can achieve. Laurent has experience capturing Cléry’s intoxicating screen presence in her 2014 coming-of-age film Breathe and that familiarity is immediately apparent with a creative relationship that will hopefully continue into the future.
What separates a protagonist like Eugénie from those in similar films is her undying faith in her abilities. Even while under extreme duress inflicted upon her in barbaric fashion by the doctors in Salpêtrière, Eugénie never once backs down from her belief, all but guaranteeing her imprisonment but endearing her to those around her. Her lack of doubt in what she sees is truly refreshing, not bogging the narrative down in the swamp of a protagonist questioning themselves, as their resolve is the survival mechanism they require to withstand the world around them.
The Salpêtrière is shown to us and Eugénie immediately as a monstrous place, with the howls of women echoing throughout the walls as she is dragged from her carriage – her father François (Cédric Kahn) and brother Théo (Benjamin Voisin) barely able look at her out of shame – unable to face the nightmare they have condemned her to. This is a famed hospital, the largest in Paris and known for its discoveries in neuroscience, but this film sets out to show us that within these hallowed walls, there is great pain and trauma being inflicted on the women inside, imprisoned here and experimented on in truly barbaric ways.
These acts of barbarism would weigh down most films, but Laurent is able to dull the blade of the men’s savagery through the close and careful attention given to the women Eugénie meets in the dormitory, who develop a wonderful camaraderie over the course of the film. A quietly moving moment happens after Eugénie returns from a horrific stay in hydrotherapy where we see her truly open up to the other inmates around her, embracing those she originally turned away from.
Whilst The Mad Women’s Ball is very much an actor’s showcase, there are some truly wonderful flourishes from Laurent and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. There is a beautiful use of natural lighting which was displaying throughout, highlighted in images echoing still life paintings of tea cups and hairbrushes that places the film firmly in the set period of the 19th century. It is common for actor-turned-director’s to focus on their actor to a fault, but Laurent is shown to have a clear vision for the story that is consistent and thoughtful throughout the film.
In a film full of thematic motifs and imagery, the corset stands out, climaxing in a gripping intercut sequence between Eugénie and Geneviève, removing the symbolic restrictions placed upon the two women by a patriarchal world that looks to dominate them. The scene is a climax of earned melodrama, which a lot of films fall short of achieving, but when it is captured it can be quite transcendent. The motif of the corset is established not just through the literal clothing item, but in the constant hounding from Eugénie’s father François, telling her to fix her posture in almost every scene they share, attempting to drill his ideas of appearance and respectability through societal pressures into his daughter.
This is Laurent’s largest production to date and is setup for big things next year with an adaptation of the bestselling novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah on the horizon next year, starring Dakota and Elle Fanning, that is sure to further launch her into the next level of her terrific filmmaking career.
The Mad Women’s Ball is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.