Director Mélanie Laurent and co-writer Christophe Deslandes’ adaptation of Victoria Mas’ Le bal des folles (2019), is a deeply unsettling work. There are moments that provoke seething anger, your imagination leaping to correct the injustice while the body remains unexpressive. In one breath you want to have your hands around the throat of those in charge of La Pitié Salpétrière Hospital, where the young and vibrant, Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge), has been committed by her father François (Cédric Khan). In the next breath, you drum up speeches in your mind, recusing Dr. Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) and his staff of doctors and nurses for their brutish treatments.
The Mad Women’s Ball (2021) is a work of juxtaposing tonal shades that fuels its emotional provocation. There’s hope and despair, cruelty and kindness, curiosity and ignorance.
Set in Paris at the close of the 19th century, Eugénie is a precocious young woman, a keen reader, who can talk to spirits. When her mother and father discover her gift, she’s put under the care of Charcot, professor and pioneer of neurology. Removed from her affluent lifestyle, she is housed in a dormitory with women diagnosed with mental illnesses. There she meets senior nurse Geneviève Gleizes (Mélanie Laurent), whose elderly father was a doctor and who is still grieving the death of her sister. The pair forge a connection, and as the annual ball, the Bal des folles approaches, their lives will be changed.
Eugénie is a captivating character that lures us into her world. Her vibrant spirit, her thirst for ideas, the impression that she is a woman ahead of her time, all command our affection. Laurent conveys the powerlessness of her protagonist, the abruptness at which her life has been interrupted, her subversive spirit snuffed out. We grieve her fate and the harm that is set to be done to her.
The director and co-writer, however, allow us to condemn Geneviève prematurely. When we first encounter her, there’s no reason to like her. Perceiving her as the antagonist, we’re tapping into familiar tropes, in particular, Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicolson), from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975). It’s natural to be suspicious of any figure of authority, and viewers might projecting negative, even hateful, and angry feelings toward her character. Albeit we’re experiencing another person’s anguish, our survival instincts are activated, and these compel us to react impulsively.
Laurent and Deslandes know this human tendency and use it effectively. They reveal the hastiness of our judgement as we begin to realise that Eugénie and Geneviève are both precocious and open-minded women that are held down by their patriarchal society.
It’s an unremarkable transformation for its simplicity, but it’s effective in deepening our engagement. Laurent has a wonderfully expressive face, her performance as powerful when she’s silent as she is talking. It’s a trait mirrored by de Laâge, which honours the need for these repressed women to exist internally within their own minds.
With their enlightening words, Eugénie and Geneviève express a natural curiosity that juxtaposes with the stubborn and rigid thinking that surrounds them. Charcot and the others treat patients diagnosed with egomania, but ironically they’re victims of their own egos. They are an affliction, heightening the suffering of the patients, yet they remain steadfast in the delusion that they’re helping.
The inquisitive natures of Eugénie and Geneviève, however, allow them to interrogate, to not only look but to see. In a world of cruel and unsympathetic demons, blinded by the ignorant and impulsive aspects of human nature, these two women are seemingly angels.
Rigidly structured, the story and the characters are under the tight grip of the filmmaker’s control. The way Laurent follows the action and frames the characters, she shows her natural eye for direction. The script is beautifully written, and the final cut of the film embraces words and silent expression. Neither expressive nor original in its aesthetic execution, The Mad Women’s Ball is a solidly crafted piece of filmmaking.
The controlled approach is fitting because the story is about being without power or agency. It’s also about the oppressive nature of science and the intellectual towards spiritualism and humanism. Laurent and Deslandes beautifully capture a contradiction woven into our existence when Eugénie confronts Charcot. She asks him what the difference is between religious apparitions and the spirits she sees?
It’s a moment that addresses the contradiction between religious devotion, or an intellectual compromise with religious institutions, and the skepticism of the supernatural. It also comments about the way religion has undergone a metamorphosis, transcending its narrative origins and its shades of horror and the supernatural, or at least in Charcot’s eyes in 19th century Paris.
How do we make peace with the afflictions of pain? Does the passage of time void the suffering of those deemed mentally ill? There are no answers to resolve this past hurt, we can only witness the horror of human cruelty, the aching pain of being powerless. This is in abundance in Laurent’s film, a reminder that the intellectual community can struggle to demonstrate emotional intelligence.
Eugénie and Geneviève’s story reminds us of the sins of the past. Our history tells us that we’re savages with a capacity for kindness and intelligence. Here, we witness the extremes of the light and the darkness, sights of beauty and horror that are difficult to forget.
The Madwomen’s Ball is at its heart a love story, underpinned by the ideas of freedom and imprisonment. It expresses a nuanced definition of these terms that are liberated from the literal. It’s a love story of affectionate understanding, not of the common associations of lust or love. If by its conclusion it feels romantic and sentimental, the different tonal shades, the contradictions offer a literal and spiritual experience that sees Laurent’s period piece blossom.