"The Mad Women's Ball" review: a shock in the system

In its opening moments, “The Mad Women’s Ball” slowly focuses on a woman’s neck and the swirl of her hair pinned into a bun. It is an i...


In its opening moments, “The Mad Women’s Ball” slowly focuses on a woman’s neck and the swirl of her hair pinned into a bun. It is an image that may recall Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. Here, it confirms that director Mélanie Laurent’s drama – set in Paris in the late 1800s and based on a novel by Victoria Mas – will touch on horror.

Daughter of a statutory father, Eugénie (Lou de Laage) appears haunted by spirits. While talking with her grandmother or getting ready for bed, she will start to breathe quickly, to shake, to look at something that no one else sees. She also tends to say what she thinks. To the chagrin of her beloved brother (Benjamin Voisin), Eugenie is interned by her father in the asylum where a diagnosis of hysteria is all the rage. The title evening was a real event organized at the Salpêtrière hospital during the tenure of the famous neurologist, Dr Jean-Martin Charcot.

Depicted here, the gathering is as grotesque as one might fear. It is also a highlight of patient fellowship. Eugenie becomes a catalyst, pushing the head nurse, Geneviève (played by Laurent), towards doubts about the ethics of her beloved institution.

Laurent made an elegant but overheated melodrama that amplifies the meanness of Charcot and his colleagues (one turns out to be particularly appalling) to underline how the medical establishment was – and still is. A feminist work, “The Mad Women’s Ball” also tackles the way in which women can be accomplices. Emmanuelle Bercot does chilly jobs like Jeanne, the nurse Charcot calls on to manage Eugenie’s isolation. Move over, Nurse Ratched.

The ball of mad women
Unclassified. In French, with subtitles. Duration: 1 hour 54 minutes. Look on Amazon.

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