Mélanie Laurent's The Mad Women’s Ball is based on Victoria Mas’ novel Le Bal des folles which was published in 2019. The story imagines that one of the forty thousand mourners that lined the streets of Paris during Victor Hugo’s funeral procession in 1885 was gifted with the ability to see spirits and, for that very reason, she is institutionalized at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Asylum by her bourgeois family.
The Mad Women’s Ball Confronts the Treatment of “Female Hysteria”
The beginning of The Mad Women’s Ball opens like any period drama. Dressed in finery, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) draws ire from her father (André Marcon) when she voices her desires of independence and to accompany her brother Théophile (Benjamin Voisin) to the salon. Her brother indulges her in her desires and takes her to the Montmartre to read at the café, which is where she meets a man who lends her a book on spirits.
The book provides her with a learned approach to the supernatural gift that she possesses and introduces the audience to her ability to speak to spirits. She has several episodes during these opening minutes of the film, where she speaks to someone just out of frame and has seizure-like convulsions, but she seems to have them controlled, for better or for worse. When Eugénie recovers a decades-lost necklace in the company of her grandmother, explaining that her deceased grandfather told her where to find it, she is whisked away to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Asylum under false pretenses.
From there, The Mad Women’s Ball shifts into a searing indictment of the horrors found within the walls of a women’s asylum. Eugénie is stripped bare and examined by the nurses and doctors before she is whisked away to the dormitory where she meets the other women who have been institutionalized there. Some women are there for attempting to murder their husbands, others because they have Down Syndrome (which wouldn’t be fully discovered until the 1950s), others like Louise (Lomane de Dietrich) have epilepsy and other very real maladies.
But to the doctors at Pitié-Salpêtrière, like Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet), these women are just living medical dummies for them to examine, manipulate, abuse, and sexually assault. The film illuminates these inhumane actions with vivid realism that will leave audiences feeling like helpless bystanders.
While there are some horrible nurses at the asylum, Eugénie tenuously befriends the head nurse Geneviève (played by Laurent herself). Geneviève is skeptical of Eugénie’s alleged gifts, at first, until she accurately predicts an incident with her father and knows, in detail, about Geneviève’s late sister. Eugénie’s survival rests in the hands of Geneviève, who risks everything for Eugénie at the Madwomen’s Ball.
The Mad Women’s Ball is a beautiful, albeit dreary, film. While it could have benefited from being somewhat shorter (it is 121 minutes long) it captures the inhumane conditions that countless women endured and still endure at the hands of duplicitous doctors.
My only wish with The Mad Women’s Ball is that they had gone a little deeper into the supernatural elements. Throughout the film, Eugenie sees the spirits, but the audience never gets to see what she sees. We see her frozen in terror, compelled to move at the whim of the spirits, frightened in the dark of the night, but the camera never turns to reveal what she is witnessing. Perhaps it was a choice made to imply that perhaps Eugenie didn’t see anything, but we all know that she was not a madwoman — she was a gifted woman in a man’s world that didn’t respect her gifts.
The Mad Women’s Ball had its world premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is scheduled to premiere on Amazon Prime Video on September 17th, 2021.
Check out our full coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.