The Mad Women’s Ball, set in 1885, is a French thriller whose closest thematic bond is 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Based on the book by Victoria Mas, the film is a fictional account of wronged women and unjust horrors, as they are placed in asylums against their will. In this case, the real-life infamous Salpêtrière Hospital is painted in a ghastly light. Those on the fringes of society are considered hysterics and mentally unstable; instead of trying to understand and help these women, they are treated as if harmful to society. Lou de Laâge acts as anchor, delivering a stunning performance full of passion and headstrong determination.
Eugenie (de Laâge) has a special gift that she is only just beginning to learn how to channel: she can commune with spirits. Coming from a wealthy family, Eugenie confides her condition in only her sensitive brother, Theophile (Summer of 85’s Benjamin Voisin), and her grandmother (Martine Chevallier), who both appear loving and accepting. However, the very next day, Eugenie is tricked to take a long ride across the countryside with Theophile and her stuffy father. It ends with her forced admittance into Salpêtrière Hospital—an asylum with truly questionable morals and patient treatment.
Eugenie’s gift catches the eye of kind nurse Genevieve (Mélanie Laurent), still deep in the grieving stages from the loss of her sister. The two women connect, even as Eugenie pleads for mercy. She is forced to endure all manner of sickening and completely inhumane treatments designed to fix what is not broken in the first place. After Eugenie helps Genevieve speak with her sister from beyond the grave, the duo plot Eugenie’s impossible escape from the devious methods of Professor Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet).
Mélanie Laurent takes the reins on the picture, pulling off director, writer, and second lead actress with ease. At first I hated Genevieve, but before long I found myself falling in love with this character too. Laurent does a terrific job in getting one acquainted with each woman in a way that feels special. The smaller roles are still significant and purposeful—my favorite relationship in the movie actually comes in the form of the bond between Eugenie and her brother, Theophile. From the second Eugenie is imprisoned, he will stop at nothing to send her messages and somehow communicate with her. His reaction is in stark contrast to the rest of their family, who choose to act as if Eugenie may as well just be thrown out with the rest of the garbage.
I can imagine a bulk of this footage being challenging to film. The hydrotherapy sequence and twisted game of “eclipse” orchestrated by the awful Jeanne (Emmanuelle Bercot) are the most agonizing to watch. A tragic rape scene captures a reality altogether too revolting to acknowledge; that it happens to one of kindest characters in The Mad Women’s Ball is a tragedy. The harmful hypnosis as a means to trigger mania takes it to another level of extreme savagery via unlawful experimentation. It remains shameful that women of this time period were treated with such disdain, and discarded by their families as if rotten. The disgusting reality is that many (if not most!) of these women simply did not belong within the walls of an asylum. The film’s dramatic highs culminate in the grand ball of the film’s title, delivering an emotionally gripping finale.
While justice sadly did not exist for females of this time period, there is a certain satisfaction to be found here. That their voices have been reclaimed in a way through the female empowerment of all this girl-power talent involved behind the screen makes me hopeful for our future. As The Mad Women’s Ball remains a perfect example, one thing is clear: the world is a cruel place, but if you can find just one person to believe in you, it can give us all hope for humanity.
The Mad Women’s Ball screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, and releases September 17th on Amazon Prime.