Set in 19th century France, The Mad Women’s Ball follows Eugenie (Lou de Laage), a young, wealthy lady of the manor who feels institutionalized within family and gender expectations. Her father expects her to be married off to a husband while she wants to travel, go on adventures and learn new things like her brother Theophile (Benjamin Voisin, last seen in TIFF20’s Summer of 85). But there’s more to Eugenie’s story; she has a curious gift which allows her to hear and communicate with the dead.
When her family finds out, they declare her to be insane, and confine her to an all-female mental institution. The institution’s treatment of women, regardless of affliction, is inhumane and torturous, and Eugenie’s only source of hope is her relationship with the lead orderly Genevieve (Melanie Laurent). The two strike a deal – if Eugenie helps Genevieve communicate with her deceased relatives, she will make her imprisonment easier to cope with.
The Mad Women’s Ball is the latest effort from writer/director/actress Melanie Laurent, who is best known to American audiences as the female lead Shoshanna in Quentin Tarantino’s wartime epic Inglourious Basterds. But in her native France, she’s also known as a playwright and filmmaker. For her latest effort, she reunites with actress de Laage, one of the stars of her acclaimed Breathe (Respire).
The Mad Women’s Ball is an ambitious melding of several subgenres, including a psychological thriller, a chamber drama, and a tale of burgeoning friendship. It is clear that Laurent is most interested in the latter, and given the film’s source material (Victoria Mas‘ novel of the same name), and the long runtime (just over two hours), The Mad Women’s Ball can feel both unfocused and undernourished in terms of audience expectations.
When it comes to the thriller/psychological drama aspects, Laurent does a good job establishing the complications and stakes of the story. The torturous methods Eugenie is subjected to, including elongated confinement within a bathtub filled with ice, are handled with subtlety and without histrionics, supported by gritty cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (Bullhead, The Drop, I Tonya and Cruella), which lends the environment a sense of palpable unease. However, the focus isn’t thorough enough, meaning Eugenie’s state of mind is never really questioned – can she truly communicate with the dead? Her “gift” is treated as fact, both in her mind and by Laurent, undermining the film’s suspense a little.
It all comes down to expectations; some will definitely argue that the intention of the film is not to question Eugenie’s mental health, but to focus on the severe mistreatment of women under the guise of medical treatment. In that, Laurent follows through convincingly; particularly with the way that men are portrayed in the institution (the warden and doctors abuse and exploit women for their own gain), and how the women are wrongly deemed clinically insane (one woman is declared hysterical after she had rejected her uncle’s sexual advances). The women, patient or otherwise, have grown so accustomed to the toxic environment that they become submissive, even catatonic, or they actively participate in it, as with the warden’s wife Jeanne (Emmanuelle Bercot).
The chemistry between Laage and Laurent is nuanced, convincing, and is not cloying in ways that makes any conflict in their relationship emotionally manipulative. Laage portrays a naivety and adventurous nature in the first act, making it easy for the audience to sympathize with her. She is equally as capable when venturing into darker emotions, as Eugenie falls deeper into the workings of the institution. Laurent does a great job as Genevieve, especially when exploring the inner conflict of catering to her own needs and the needs of the women, the institution, and her family, all while remaining stoic toward the cruel practices of the institution.
Overall, The Mad Women’s Ball is a compelling drama, emotionally convincing in portrayals both of the mistreatment of women under the guise of tending to mental illness, and of a burgeoning friendship. Recommended.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Mad Woman’s Ball screened as part of this year’s Toronto Film Festival and is now showing on Amazon Prime.