Mélanie Laurent adapted, directs and stars in The Mad Women’s Ball (Le Bal Des Folles), a French Amazon Original that premiered in the Galas section at the Toronto International Film Festival. Lou de Laâge, who worked with Laurent in Breathe, co-stars in the moving story of oppressed women in late 19th century France. Based on the novel by Victoria Mas, it blends real-life characters with fictional ones in the disturbing setting of a mental institution.
Eugénie (de Laâge) is a well-heeled French girl who craves the education and experience men like her brother can enjoy. She also sees dead people — not all the time, but enough to concern her family. “I know what happens to girls like you,” says Eugénie’s worried brother, and sure enough, her father soon carts her off to La Pitié Salpétrière Hospital, the real-life clinic in Paris run by celebrated neurology pioneer Dr Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet).
Charcot is not quite so celebrated by the patients, whether they’re being humiliated in public hypnosis demonstrations or tortured with ice baths in the name of “hydrotherapy.” But Eugénie’s way with the dead might just be her lifeline when she discovers that nurse Geneviève (Laurent) is grieving her sister, and longs to hear from her.
While the premise has a paranormal theme, the tone is of stylized realism — we never see the spirits that Eugénie claims to, just the trance that overtakes her when she receives messages from the beyond. These are chiefly used to propel the plot forward, rather than to create a sense of otherworldly mystery, though their veracity suggests she has a genuine gift.
Laurent’s chief focus is on the daily life of the women in the build-up to the titular ball, when they are dressed up and paraded around for the fascination and lechery of the assembled men. These are women who are diagnosed with everything from epilepsy to “hysteria,” blamed by men and punished by women enacting men’s orders.
As Laurent highlights the bitter reality for women in this patriarchal institution, the tone veers towards feminist prison drama. But there are also flickers of joy that lighten the load and give a sense of the warmth between the women. Whether they are laughing, bonding or comforting each other, the women connect in a way that feels credible and heartwarming without being sentimental — there are shades of Girl, Interrupted here.
There’s a striking scene in which one patient breaks into song in church — these are the kind of women that, later in history, would be celebrated for their extraordinary talents, rather than locked up.
Performances are strong; Laurent the conflicted buttoned-up nurse, de Laâge the headstrong and beautiful mystic. The parallels between the two central characters are mainly communicated visually: Laurent and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis enhance their similarities with several scenes in which they mirror positions — one locked up, another free, but in her own kind of internal prison.
The film’s ending feels a little rushed, but this is still a poignant period piece that tells a compelling story about sisterhood and survival, and bodes well for Laurent’s next feminist feature, The Nightingale.