At Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds was the leading role of French actress Melanie Laurent in Hollywood, and she followed with leading roles in Now you see me and 6 Underground.
But Laurent has also prospered as a director, and she brings her latest work, The ball of mad women, in which she also stars in the first French original feature film from Amazon, at the Toronto International Film Festival for a world premiere.
The film, set in 19th-century Paris, tells the story of a young woman named Eugenie, played by Lou de Laage, who is hospitalized against her will because she claims she can talk to ghosts. When Eugenie meets Geneviève (Laurent), a nurse at the neurological clinic at La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, a bond is formed between them thanks to Geneviève’s desire to communicate with her deceased sister. Women’s lives change forever when they attend the famous Bal des Folles, a social ball held every year at the clinic.
Ahead of The ball of mad women launch in Toronto, Laurent spoke to THR about her preference for on-screen book adaptations and working with women on set and not attending its world premiere in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crazy women ball is based on the novel by Victoria Mas. What attracted you to the adaptation of the novel?
It started two years ago and I wanted to make a film about women and something feminist. And I wanted to make a period movie and I had in mind a story of witches and women who couldn’t do anything and were seen as monsters and witches because they knew something. The producer came to me with the book and I thought it was exactly what I was looking for – a story about someone seeing ghosts and spirits, which would be okay today, but not there. has two centuries, and especially for women.
Your film follows Eugenie, a bourgeois woman who believes in spirits and is unfairly institutionalized, and Geneviève, a nurse who works in the hospital, obeys science and doctors and ends up being confined in the same hospital. Tell us about the confrontation and collaboration of these two women in the film.
I loved the idea of having a woman who believes in science and a woman who is gifted and can talk to spirits in a hospital, and then being able to talk about who can believe what, and what freedom at the end.
Your film revolves around the disturbing but captivating performance of Lou De Laage. You worked with her in To breathe (2014), a coming-of-age tale based on another novel. Was Lou De Laage always going to star in Crazy women ball?
Lou is a dream to work with. I loved her as a friend and of course as a director to see how she has acquired so much maturity, she accesses emotions so much more easily. In Breathe, the first movie we did together, she was the bad guy, and now it’s the beautiful angel coming in and taking care of people in a very gentle way. It’s amazing as a director to meet someone who can be your muse and see how different she can be in so many different characters.
You play Geneviève in the film. Was it a difficult role?
He is a complex and mysterious character. She is a very sad and lonely woman, who comes from a difficult past. Not much is known about her, except that her father is a doctor and that she lost her sister. You don’t know anything about his private life. And she has no respect for Dr Chaquot and the other doctors. She is invisible, and she faces her greatest fear: can my sister hear me? It’s hard to believe in science, and talk to her (sister). In the end, she sacrifices herself, obviously, but I feel that she is freer inside the hospital. She can be inside a prison because her mind is free.
Your film has this constant but close distance between Eugenie and Geneviève, which culminates in the final climactic scene. How did you plan and maintain this?
What I really wanted to show on the screen was the freshness and the distance between all these human beings who have [a comfortable] life and yet I don’t know how to communicate. You have a cold father, a mother who can’t protect her own daughter, a very mean grandmother. So she comes from this cold world, with space between everyone, and arrives in a very crazy hospital where everyone needs to touch each other so badly.
You slowly but surely reduce this distance between Eugenie and Geneviève during the film with camera shots. Talk it over.
At the start of the film, there are a lot more leads to show the camera movements and the space between them and their coolness and inability to speak together. As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more possible to see them touching each other, almost, and in one scene their hands actually come together. You’re right, it takes the whole movie to close this space between them, because it’s not easy for them.
To breathe was based on a novel. So is Ball of mad women. And the HBO Galveston was based on a novel by Nic Pizzalatto. What attracts you to film adaptations?
Well, yeah, the last three movies were from novels. Maybe I don’t have a lot of imagination (Laughs). No, there is something exciting about adapting a book. For example, To breathe, I read it when I was 18, and was traumatized by the book. And 10 years later, I’m adapting the movie and I’ll never read the book again. I had memories of it. I made another movie called Diving [released in 2017], and I remembered reading the last page and the last six lines and just imagined the whole movie in those six lines and closed the book. I am lucky each time with the writers. I guess that’s the key to feeling free to work this way. It’s always the writers who trust the idea the movie is going to be based on, and I can have the freedom to have my own vision. And with book adaptations, sometimes it’s just a line, sometimes it’s just the title, sometimes it’s a general story and you make it your own. And oddly, you have so much space to bring your world in.
To breathe was about a female relationship. Your next film, Nightingale, tells the story of two sisters in France, played by Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning. Can you explain why you enjoy making movies about relationships between women?
My first film was about two sisters and they were having a hard time letting a man come into their life. And I think it’s my relationship with cinema and history. I love working with women so much. It’s not in the spirit of movies right now, that female directors can make movies. I’ve always made films about women, and most of the time they were about strong women. I like actors, but it’s not the same job. It’s not the same relationship. I like working with actresses. I find it so much easier to work with women. It would be interesting for me to get into a very masculine film. So far my heart goes naturally to women’s stories.
Are actresses just better at expressing their emotions on screen?
No, it’s not a question of emotion. I found the actresses less complicated, first of all. They are more open-minded, more accessible, the more I will grant you. I’m ready to work and take your hand and listen to what you have to say, and then all together and we’ll go somewhere. I think it’s a feeling of maybe being more comfortable working with women. Now I like working with male technicians, more than with female technicians sometimes. So it’s funny. I never intellectualized it. I just know as a director and actress that I have made over 40 films and have only worked with three female directors. And it is obviously very different.
Crazy women ball will premiere next month at the Toronto Film Festival. How excited are you about this debut?
I’m so happy to have my movie screen in a big movie theater. It is important to me to do this with Prime Video. But it makes sense for me to show it in a big hall and with an audience that will see it all together and for the film to be released in so many countries at the same time. You know, when you make a movie and work on it for four years and your movie comes out in two theaters and only for two weeks? This is the best case we have with these (online) platforms for making real cinema and also knowing that the film will be seen. It’s a new and interesting way of working. And I’m still waiting for this new world where you can have both: you can see movies in theaters, but also on platforms. I am sure the merger will be the way we work in the future.
Won’t you be at the Toronto World Premiere in person?
No, they just told us that European artists cannot travel because of COVID. It’s so sad.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the daily September 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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