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Film Review

THE MAD WOMEN’S BALL (2021) Review

J-L reviews THE MAD WOMEN’S BALL, streaming now on Prime, calling it “a deeply feminist film” and “profoundly melancholic.”

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The Mad Women's Ball (Amazon Studios)

The Mad Women’s Ball is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.

Synopsis

A woman who is unfairly institutionalized at Paris asylum plots to escape with the help of one of its nurses. Based on the novel ‘Le bal des folles’ by Victoria Mas.

Review

Premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival before its streaming release on Prime Video today, Mélanie Laurent’s The Mad Women’s Ball is the first French-language film to be produced by Amazon Studios and is well worth watching. Based on the novel Le bal des folles by Victoria Mas, it sees Laurent take on the always commendable challenge of writing, directing and acting in a feature-length film.

The 19th century narrative centres around a beautiful young Parisian socialite named Eugénie Clery, played by Lou de Laâge, who feels great disdain for the expectations and norms of the patriarchal society in which she finds herself and instead, armed with her cynical wit and charm, longs to partake in activities of her own choosing. One such pastime is reading and Eugénie comes to take great interest in the concept of spiritualism due to her ability to commune with the dead. In turn, her father (Cédric Kahn) decides to admit her to the infamous Salpêtrière Asylum in fear of damage to his family’s reputation.

During her time in the asylum, the female patients are watched over by Laurent’s character – head nurse Geneviève – who begins to question both the ethics of her work and her own beliefs following Eugénie’s arrival.

The film is a sensitive portrayal that is unafraid to demonstrate the physical, mental and emotional mistreatment of women throughout history in the medical field, as Laurent’s direction masterfully induces uncomfortable and unpleasant responses on command, honest in its various depictions of the brutality of the situation without feeling exploitative.

The cyclical nature of hegemonic masculinity is on full show, such that even women fall into the system of oppression, aiding in the maintenance of male dominance; the women must keep other women onside because they themselves know all too well the consequences of shaking the system.

The viewer is told early on of a central tenet of spiritualism, that “man is made of three things. Firstly, the body, the material being … similar to an animal and animated by the same life force. Secondly, the soul. The spirit that the body contains. Thirdly, the connection between body and soul.” Such notions are expertly drawn upon throughout the film, both in speech and action.

Laurent’s presentation of the women on the ward is sensitive and considerate, presenting them such that they are not simply defined by their conditions. One such character is Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), who quickly befriends Eugénie and provides some profound words. For instance, she parallels the above reference to our animalistic nature to describe how they are “treated worse than animals”, reflecting how they are used and discarded on a whim for medical purposes in the asylum that feels more like a prison.

She also tells Eugénie “when you get out, you’ll be a different woman”, which feels like a logline for her arc. Lou de Laâge shines with a compelling performance that demands the viewer to empathise, with her pleading cries and her spiritual convulsions. She wears her heart on her sleeve, establishing Eugénie’s duality with impressive ease in the opening moments, capturing her warmness and spirit alongside her strength and resilience. Thus, it is all the more devastating during her lows, as we see her complete transformation from warmth and strength to coldness and weakness, all because she is feared and misunderstood.

The movie is beautifully shot on film and utilises natural lighting at every opportunity which enhances the connection with the characters. The editing, both in visuals and sound, create genuine emotion through overlayed sounds, back-and-forth sequences and smash cuts.

Bordering on horror, a sentiment aided by Asaf Avidan’s haunting, suspenseful and emotional cello-featuring score, the film is grounded in the very real and tragic ill-treatment of women with a focus on the living. It seems like it could have been easy to physically depict the spirits, but it is hard to imagine that such an approach would garner the same effect.

Whether Eugénie’s capacity to serve as an afterlife conduit is to be considered a blessing or a curse constitutes a major part of the film’s narrative; whilst some hail the “miracles” she performs, others disparagingly accuse her of “witchcraft”. Indeed, Laurent not only presents but deftly challenges the hypocritical ideologies on display. Eugénie is at once demonised as a witch yet ostracised as mentally ill, her social castration for speaking to unseen entities coming from those who would also pray to God.

Another interesting hypocrisy amongst everything comes from the unpleasant hospital director Jean-Martin Charcot, played despicably by Grégoire Bonnet. Charcot continuously aims to assert his dominance and insists that nothing can go wrong with the treatment of his patients, despite the fact that the confined women are incessantly tormented and abused in the name of his psychiatric research. Despite his claims that he is “responsible” for his patients, he does nothing to actually care for them himself but instead merely governs from afar; the facade of dutiful care that he presents is clearly undermined by his exploitation of his patients, but more cleverly through Laurent’s screenplay: “Empty the chamber pots. I can smell them from here.”

The film does at times feel slightly too long, even if certain plot developments and themes are underexplored, particularly with regards to the communication with spirits. Perhaps Laurent was slightly too ambitious, trying to weave one too many threads.

Verdict

Nonetheless, The Mad Women’s Ball is a deeply feminist film, stamped with a demand for female agency and bodily autonomy, that is profoundly melancholic and at times devastating, plagued with sorrow but buoyed by comparatively heartwarming moments of bittersweetness.


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