Atmospheric and haunting, The Mad Women’s Ball (le bal des folles) is a relevant and riveting psychodrama that follows one woman’s battle to take charge of her own destiny amid a society determined to subjugate her. Coming at a time when women’s bodily autonomy seems once again up for debate and discussion, Mélanie Laurent’s latest directorial effort untangles the patriarchal and institutional abuses of the late 19th century and proves—frustratingly—that when it comes to progress, society has changed far less than we’d like to admit.
The story opens in 1885 amid Victor Hugo’s funeral procession—the largest of its day. Between 2-3 million people observed the great literary figure’s casket as it was moved from the Arc de Triomphe to its final resting place at the Pantheon. Among the throng of mourners stands Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge), a passionate young woman who we soon learn can see and hear the dead. That’s far from the only thing that sets her apart from other ladies of her time. Fiercely independent and quick to voice her opinions, she would rather travel to a bohemian café in Montmartre to read and smoke than spend time among the titled gentry looking for a suitable husband. Close to her brother Théophile (Benjamin Voisin), Eugénie chafes against the rigid expectations of the rest of her family–in particular, her intolerant father. It transpires that Théo is the only one who knows of his sister’s secret and resolves to keep it to himself, especially since he has a secret of his own.
Unfortunately for her, Eugénie experiences one of her episodes—which often transpire like a seizure or trance—in front of her watchful grandmother and confesses to her abilities on the spot. Instead of keeping her confidence, the grandmother—worried for the health of her granddaughter—tells all to the rest of the family. Less than 24 hours later, Eugénie finds herself committed by her father to the women’s neurological clinic at Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital. De Laâge is superb in the lead role throughout the film, but her ability to channel the injustice, the terror and the helplessness in this one moment is truly affecting. It’s a scene that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.
Laurent and Chris Deslandes’ screenplay deftly ensures that psychiatry’s misogynistic roots are on full display as Eugénie settles into her grim prison. The all-male line of specialists attending to the female patients not only clearly misunderstand their subjects but seem to fear them as well. Very few women are there by choice. Many have suffered sexual abuse or are fleeing violence. Others are stricken by poverty, are criminals, or are simply disabled or different. Most are there because of their mistreatment by the men around them. The clinic, overseen by Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet), diagnoses most with hysteria, a bogus all-encompassing condition that acts as the perfect cover for all manner of abuses dressed up as ground-breaking therapies (ice baths, solitary confinement, hypnosis). Laurent smartly lets the horrors speak for themselves, letting her camera become little more than a silent observer of the film’s more traumatic moments.
Eugénie bonds with the women around her, appreciating their honesty and comfort. She becomes especially close with Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), a young woman who has already suffered abuse at the hands of a male authority figure. Louise is a favourite of Charcot and is often used in his psychiatric demonstrations, paraded in front of a crowd of men like the star attraction of a sideshow. Eugénie also becomes close with Geneviève (Laurent), the chief nurse at the clinic, who gradually begins to question the methods of Charcot while opening herself to the spiritual possibilities of Eugénie’s visions.
In most supernatural stories, the debate on whether Eugénie can or cannot actually commune with spirits would form a large thrust of the plot. But there is no suspense to be had here—she can. This smartly allows the focus of the story to remain with the institution and the treatment of the patients within. The terror is purely terrestrial. To escape the confines of Pitié-Salpêtrière, Eugénie uses her friends on the other side to deduce potential weaknesses among the nursing staff, including Geneviève and the Nurse Ratched-esque Jeanne (Emmanuelle Bercot). She develops a plan to escape on the night of the annual Mad Women’s Ball, where the patients are allowed to dress up and mingle with paying members of the public.
Laurent has a great instinct for storytelling both behind and in front of the camera. Her Geneviève mesmerizes as she slowly shifts from institutional acolyte to a spiritually-awakened free thinker. As a director, her choices are confident and sure, her camera providing shades and layers where and when they’re necessary. She also draws great performances from Lou de Laâge and the sizeable supporting cast, particularly from Bercot and de Dietrich, allowing each character room to breathe and captivate. The attention to detail here is likewise impressive, from costumes and undergarments to equipment and set decoration. Every choice and every frame is deliberate and it ensures the film is both impactful and highly watchable.
Based on the novel by Victoria Mas, The Mad Women’s Ball is a stark portrayal of women betrayed by a patriarchal society determined to silence them. Despite the veneer of science, the emotional biases at the heart of medicine and health have unbalanced the systems to the detriment of one half of the population and Laurent’s film reminds us that over a century later, we’re still dealing with the fallout.
The Mad Women’s Ball screened as a part of TIFF 2021 and is available on Amazon Prime today.