One of my most powerful cinematic memories is from 1948’s The Snake Pit, starring Olivia de Havilland, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing Virginia Cunningham. That movie, and the book it was based on, literally changed mental health in the United States. In it, Virginia has been sent to a state mental hospital after a breakdown. Surrounded by female inmates, she navigates the wards going down to a wards filled with women in straightjackets, or going up to a less restricted one, depending on how she’s progressing. The community dance in The Snake Pit was one of many compelling scenes that inspired my research into the treatment of women by the mental health system way back when I was under 10 years old.
It seems writer/director Mélanie Laurent shares my fascination and concern about women and mental institutions. She has directed and written the screenplay for The Mad Women’s Ball. The film goes further back in the long bleak history showing patriarchal branding of women as ‘hysterical’, a word rooted on the Greek for uterus. Based on the successful debut novel Le Bal des Folles by Victoria Mas, the story, which takes place in 19th century France, is about Eugénie (Lou de Laâge, continuing to expand as an actor) a headstrong, independent young woman, the daughter in a wealthy household. She is difficult to control, and worse, she has visions of spirits, a thing that would make any man celebrated and lauded, but which gives her father an excuse to send her to an insane asylum, the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. There, Eugénie finds a vast collection of discarded women, from those seen as too strong-willed, to whores, to older women no longer of use, to a very few who are actually mentally ill. They’ve been sent there by men in charge, and left to rot. Where on the outside she was rejected and judged, inside the hospital, Eugénie finds a powerful sisterhood of women who protect and support each other.
The hospital is run by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, (a doctor who existed in history, did indeed run the Salpatriére, did experiment on female patients without consent, and was lauded for his research.) Aiding him are mostly sadistic nurses, and the head nurse Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent), who is overqualified, soundly ignored, and bossed around by Charcot. She is trying to make small differences in between being relegated to changing bedpans. Eugénie finds common ground through channeling Geneviève’s dead sister and offering messages from the beyond. Perhaps with Geneviève’s help, Eugénie will not be trapped forever in this hopeless place after all.
The ball of the title does occur, but towards the end of the film, and as part of the climax of the story. It is indeed a dance, and one at which curious outsiders can come and observe and dance with the inmates, all of whom have been made up and costumed. Also included in the story taking place at the asylum is a sexually abusive doctor, Charcot’s manipulation of his patients for the entertainment of his colleagues, and emotional abuse of inmates by a nurse who could qualify as the Victorian version of Nurse Ratched.
There are very few male characters that come off as anything but cruel and completely disdainful of women, which is a problem. In fairness, within this context, these women might not often encounter kindness from men. Laurent has done copious research on all aspects of asylum life in the 19th century, as well as considered what role Charcot might have played in the atrocities that occurred at Pitie-Salpetriere. After casting secondary and featured female inmates, she partnered with the actors to create backstories for each and every character, regardless of how small their role. She also requested they choose friends inside the hospital with whom they have history, which naturally led to the kind of intimacy and connection shown between the inmates onscreen.
One failing of the film is how Geneviève’s story ultimately resolves. If she becomes aware of how precarious her position at the hospital and in society is, as it appears she slowly does, she would not likely make the choice Laurent has written for her.
Still, the characters are beautifully portrayed, and Laurent creates a compelling world for these women using the limited resources available during Covid. In showing how these discarded women are so blithely mistreated, she has also laid out a strong case for why women of the early 20th century, as in the time of The Snake Pit, as well as women today still struggle with being heard and believed by the mental health and medical communities. The Mad Women’s Ball is the kind of layered, femme-centric and very political story we need more of, and by fearless female filmmakers like Laurent.
4 out of 5 stars