One pushed her husband into the Seine during a fit of jealous rage. Another refuses to speak. Others have been depressed for years. The others have gone mad. These are the patients of Pitié-Salpêtrière, a neurological clinic in Paris, and the women at the heart of Mélanie Laurent’s hospital. The ball of mad women, a slightly rugged film but still propelling.
Laurent’s latest work as writer-director is Amazon’s first French original feature film, and will bow on the streaming giant’s platform a few days after its premiere at TIFF. Based on the novel of the same name by Victoria Mas, it tells the chilling story of a woman unfairly institutionalized by her family. It’s a clever and satisfying thriller, reinforced by its attention to the misogynistic roots of modern psychiatry and the tension between God, science, and the spiritual realm.
The ball of mad women
The bottom line
A striking, albeit uneven, look at the misogynistic roots of psychiatry.
Located in 1885, The ball of mad women opens with a funeral. Eugenie Cléry (Lou de Laage), a quick-witted and independent woman, stands among a sea of strangers gathered in a public square to mourn the death of French poet and novelist Victor Hugo. She is not supposed to be there (her father prefers that she stay at home), but Eugenie longs to be in the world. Later, at a dinner party with her family, she lies about her whereabouts that day. The only person to whom our young protagonist confides his desires and secrets, including the fact that she can speak to the dead, is his brother Theophile (played by the ineffable Benjamin Voisin).
Spirits speak to Eugenie at inconvenient times – when she is reading with her brother or, as in the most recent case, when she is helping her grandmother (Martine Chevallier) get ready for bed. The spells, in which she is gripped by the presence of ghosts, are short but all-consuming. His head begins to ache, his hands shake, his body shakes and his eyes roll back. La age, who played in Laurent’s escape as coxswain, To breathe, transforms into these scenes, playing out each instance of the seizures with more restraint, recognizing when to emphasize the drama for the most frightening effect.
After Eugenie confided in her grandmother about her condition, the family hired her at La Salpêtrière. She is entrusted there to the care of Geneviève (Laurent), an austere nurse who assists Dr Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet), the arrogant who runs the clinic, and meets the group of fellow citizens with whom she will befriend. . Of the group, Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), who was sent to the institution after finally talking about her uncle sexually assaulting her, takes Eugenie the better. The two form a partnership, somewhat reluctantly on Eugenie’s part, with Louise describing in detail how the place works, who’s who, and her sexual relationship with Jules (Christophe Montenez), one of the doctors at the clinic. .
Shocked and angry, Eugenie initially refuses to comply with the rules of the institution and takes every opportunity to insist that she does not belong to the Salpêtrière. His relationship with Geneviève, who unequivocally believes in the power of science, starts off rocky. It is only when the spirit of the nurse’s deceased sister begins to communicate with Eugenie that their relationship relaxes and Geneviève begins to undergo her own transformation.
The most of The ball of mad women concerns broader questions of belief – whether the conflict is between science and faith or between men and women. The majority of patients were sent to the clinic against their will, usually after disclosing information that their families found unpleasant or showing emotions in a way they deemed unacceptable. In other words, they are punished for not complying with the restrictive rules that society has set for women. While the script can get a bit heavy at times, Laurent, who wrote it with Chris Deslandes, does a pretty good job of disentangling these themes and their wider implications.
The more time Eugenie spends at the Salpêtrière, the more she understands that the source of these women’s problems is not their mind but the men who run the clinic. Laurent and director of photography Nicolas Karakatsanis take great care to show what these women are going through within the institution, and these scenes turn out to be among the most captivating in the film. Every day, doctors subject their patients to painful physical examinations and radical treatments such as hypnosis and ice baths. At the mercy of these grizzled figures who diagnose them as hysterical, women have no real free will. Their minds begin to betray them and they begin to develop coping mechanisms that the same doctors read as confirmation of their false diagnoses. Once that happens, women are exposed to the scientific community at the clinic’s annual masquerade ball in December.
As Eugenie’s friendship with Geneviève deepens, the two begin to realize what they have in common. Carried away by this young woman who challenges her to consider the possibility of a world beyond the visible, Geneviève begins to see the cruelty of the clinic and swears to help Eugenie escape. This is when the film turns into a gripping thriller, notably following Geneviève, as she hatches a plan to free her new friend.
For the majority, The ball of mad women is a film undoubtedly directed, reflecting the piercing gaze of Laurent and his sensitivity to unpack the problems of society. Yet there are times when it lacks a necessary grace. The abuse of its dramatic orchestral score begins to hurt moments of tension, while some scenes introduce unnecessary (and unresolved) plot points. These can be frustrating tics that take away from the powerful overall movie theater experience. In fact, the film’s best moments are when it takes a calm, more sober approach to telling the harrowing stories of these unfairly treated women.
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