Between the patients, the nursing staff and the doctors, it’s extremely hard to discern who is more unbalanced. Shouldn’t one have a particularly deranged mind to orchestrate an annual “mad women’s ball” and invite all of Paris to gape at doctor Jean-Martin Charcot’s female patients as if they were curious beasts, and thus turn the Salpêtrière hospital into a zoo? Well, this is exactly what occurs in The Mad Women’s Ball, actor/writer/director Mélanie Laurent’s latest directorial effort based on Victoria Mas’ eponymous novel.
The year is 1885, and just like every year, the very fashionable “mad women’s ball” is organized at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, where, for one night only, all of Paris dances to the tunes of the Waltz in the company of women disguised in gypsies, Spanish dancers, Columbines and other equally spellbinding costumes. Indeed, this gleeful spectacle hides a sordid reality: this masquerade ball is nothing more than one of Charcot’s experiments because you see, doctor Charcot revels in the distasteful exhibition of the mad for he is more showman than scientist, using vile soi-disant therapies and experimenting on the inmates as if they were animals. During the days prior to mid-Lent, these women prepare themselves for their only diversion of the year, without fully comprehending the real stakes – show the doctors’ work – and grasping they are actually the event’s main attraction.
At first, the institution was mainly used for homeless women and those who found themselves on the street; but as time went by, it quickly became populated by women who did not follow the strict social etiquette of the epoch. Among them are the really sick and those labelled eccentric or given the questionable diagnosis of hysteria, but there are also sound-minded women whose fathers, husbands or brothers deemed they were better off there than at home. Those are there by force. What they all do have in common is that they are caged in a place where gaslighting, abuse and belittling are the way the institution operates. Such is the fate of Louise, a young woman, extremely disturbed since being raped by her uncle and shipped off to the clinic by her aunt. Louise becomes Charcot’s star patient and as such is hypnotized in public, for the enjoyment of his colleagues, going through an astonishing state of distress that worsens after each session. Then, there is Eugénie Cléry, a bourgeois free-spirited young woman with an independent mind who reads, smokes, thinks and does not conform to social norms, all traits her father will not put up with. She has visions and is visited by the spirits of the defunct. The unfortunate woman should never have confided in her grand-mother who betrayed her to her father, who without an ounce of hesitation, sent her there to languish between the walls of what can well be called a prison, in the fear she will tarnish the family’s name. There is also Geneviève, a nurse who is entirely devoted to the celebrated psychiatrist and Jeanne, another nurse – however more compliant and complicit than Geneviève. As the lives of these women intersect and their stories unfold, the absolute injustice of the Salpêtrière takes on more and more horror, becoming little by little a horrendous and shocking symbol of the status of women in society both then and now. To this effect, one of the doctors’ “eloquent” introductory words at the beginning of the ball is the sheer embodiment of the ageless description of women by men: “… The women patients you are about to see are interesting in several ways. Fascinating even. Some are psychotic, others are compulsive liars, maniacs, melancholics, or simply idiotic. Their illnesses are often indiscernible and could be missed during a general medical examination, but they are all real, diagnosed and identified here thanks to new methods in research and teaching…”
Diving into this merciless and extremely rich universe, while deconstructing objective science, Laurent takes us on a chilling journey to the birth of psychiatry and institutional abuse where misogyny was at the roots. It is a tale dedicated to women, mad or not, but all united in their feminine condition and plights, victims of men who, at the time, held the power over them. It delicately and compassionately strips down the women’s condition in the 19th Century with Laurent skillfully following the destiny of these women, entrapped in a medical order and a masculine society where they are misjudged, dreaded and forbidden every deviance. In this regard, one particularly powerful scene that is an ode to female freedom shows the constraints society put on women through the imperative wearing of the corset when both Geneviève and Eugénie are taking theirs off in two different settings, one of suffocation and isolation endured by Eugénie and the other in personal comfort enjoyed by Geneviève – this stark contrast is also meant to highlight the abominable conditions in which the women of the Pitié-Salpêtrière lived and what isolation does to the mind.
The Mad Women’s Ball provides us with an entirely unique perspective of the city by portraying it through the lens of the women incarcerated in the asylum. With Nicolas Karakatsanis’ crisp and observant lensing and blue-greyish palette, tunesmith Asaf Avidan’s ominous and glacial score, and Anny Danché’s masterful editing, Laurent’s directing is profoundly assured, lyrical and detailed, with a textured vision and always following her protagonist. Laurent shrewdly succeeds in making you feel the pain of the entrapped women, deftly creating a claustrophobic feel, conveying her subject’s feelings of distress and provoking sentiments of sadness. Maïra Ramedhan Levi’s opulent costumes and Stanislas Reydellet’s evocative and production design take us back to the times of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola. Reunited with Lou de Laâge after their collaboration on Laurent’s debut feature, Breathe, she manages to draw an unforgettable performance by her star actress, especially in the fantastic micro-expressions and small gestures. She herself is excellent in a nuanced and calculated turn as the impassible Geneviève.
Even though The Mad Women’s Ball is set in late 19th Century Paris, it couldn’t be more contemporary. A feminist interpretation of the birth of psychiatry and the condition of women during that time in History, the first French Amazon original is a hymn to the freedom of all the women that the 19th Century has tried to stifle and silence. A maddening tale that makes you tick, The Mad Women’s Ball is uncomfortable and suffocating, haunting and brilliant.
Production: Légende Films, Amazon (France, 2021). Producers: Axelle Boucaï, Alain Goldman. Associate producer: Axel Decis. Executive producer: Fabrice Lambert. Director: Mélanie Laurent. Screenplay: Mélanie Laurent. Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis. Production Design: Stanislas Reydellet. Costume design: Maïra Ramedhan Levi. Score: Asaf Avidan. Editing: Anny Danché.
Cast: Lou de Laâge (Eugénie Cléry), Mélanie Laurent (Geneviève), Emmanuelle Bercot (Jeanne), Benjamin Voisin (Théophile), Cédric Kahn (François Cléry), Coralie Russier (Camille), Martine Chevallier (Grandmother Cléry), Grégoire Bonnet (Jean-Martin Charcot), André Marcon (Dr Gleizes), Valérie Stroh (Mrs. Cléry), Christophe Montenez (Jules), Lomane de Dietrich (Louise)
Color – 121 min. Premiere: 13-IX-2021 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Still credits: TIFF.