Although more familiar to audiences for her work on-screen in films including Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), after a series of short films that gained significant traction on the film festival circuit, Mélanie Laurent’s debut feature The Mad Women’s Ball announces the arrival of a filmmaker of enormous skill and talent. Recently playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film is adapted from Victoria Mas’s award-winning bestselling novel of the same name. Laurent both directs, co-stars in and co-wrote the film adaptation’s screenplay with Chris Deslandes, resulting in a movie that, although being in French, will surely woo even the most subtitle-phobic English language viewer with its powerful story, sumptuous filmmaking style, solid performances and the inescapable contemporary edge to its core thematics.
The Mad Women’s Ball follows Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge), a vibrant, independent and wealthy young woman in late 19th-century Paris. Close to her brother but constantly on the receiving end of her conservative father’s disdain, disappointment and disgust because of her progressive ways, Eugénie regardless is unfazed, living her life as she sees fit, reading and smoking in cafes and flirting with poets. When her family discover that Eugénie believes she can communicate with the dead, her father promptly packs her up and commits her to the Salpêtrière neurological clinic where Eugénie is effectively incarcerated against her will, carried inside kicking and screaming. Under the control of Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) – more a showman than scientist – here, Eugénie meets a range of women from all different walks of life who, like her, are often institutionalized simply because they fail to adhere to the social norms and expectations surrounding women at the time. Undergoing a range of humiliations that increase to the level of actual torture, through Eugénie’s connection with fellow inmates and with a member of the clinic’s staff, Geneviève (played by Laurent herself), she finds a way to not lose herself completely in the terrifying, misogynist world of faux science that has ensnared her.
The historical specter of “hysteria” as a supposed medical condition that dismisses any kind of validity to the reasons behind women’s explosion of intense emotion looms large in The Mad Women’s Ball, where frequently very reasonable responses to unreasonable situations are deemed signs of mental illness. With Charcot more focused on providing a gendered spectacle of out-of-control women placed under his control, the ball of the film’s title is the climactic event where male spectatorship of dominated women reaches is literal and metaphorical peak. What lies in opposition to this, however, is the camaraderie between the women themselves, with Laurent’s Geneviève the most fascinating figure here, caught as she is between the two worlds of male science on one hand, and her empathy and ultimate allegiance with the women themselves.
Today, hysteria may not be a medical diagnosis, but it is still a broadly used term deployed to dismiss and diminish women expressing strong emotion. Hearing spirits today remains enough to, if not have one institutionalized, then at least heavily medicated, ostracized and mocked, so Eugénie’s plight – and the broadly documented sexism and abuse that still riddles the medical profession – is hardly a thing solely of the past. With echoes of both Bruno Nuttyen’s Camille Claudel (1988) with Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) with Juliette Binoche, the world of The Mad Women’s Ball is not one completely unexplored by cinema before, but with Laurent in the director’s chair, Eugénie’s story is brought to life with profound resonance and emotional intelligence that speaks not just of the lived experiences of women at the time the film is set, but today.