The Mad Women’s Ball (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Trapped in a madhouse

French film “The Mad Women’s Ball”, which was released on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago, is a harrowing tale of one young woman suddenly trapped in a madhouse of the 19th century. While the movie is often chilling to see how she and many other unfortunate women often get abused and mistreated by their cruel male-dominated system, we find ourselves becoming more engaged while observing more of its unlucky heroine’s dogged struggle, and there are unexpected moments of considerable emotional power as she tries her best via a certain mysterious power of hers.

During the early part of the film, we meet a young woman named Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge), and we get to know about how suffocating her daily life has been in many aspects. While she has grown up in an affluent middle-class Parisian family, her parents expect her to be a docile lady to get married sooner or later, but that is the last thing this plucky young lady wants right now. Just like her younger brother, she wants to go outside without any restriction, and, thanks to her younger brother’s reluctant help, she later gets a chance to spend some free time at a certain area of Paris which would be not approved by her parents at any chance.

While enjoying her free time in that area, Eugénie happens to come across a young man who willingly lends a book on spiritualism during their brief encounter, and she subsequently becomes more aware of what only she has been able to hear and see for years. As a matter of fact, she often finds herself in a sort of trance, and she comes to believe that she can really see the souls of dead people hovering around her and others. That sounds pretty preposterous to say the least, but it looks like she does have the ability to see dead people, as shown from when she finds something precious to her grandmother just because, according to her, her dead grandfather told her about it in advance.

Of course, Eugénie’s growing belief on her special power is not accepted well by her family at all. On one day, her father and younger brother takes her to somewhere, and that place soon turns out to be a notorious madhouse in Paris. She certainly resists as soon as she comes to realize what is going to happen to her, but it is already too late for her, and she is soon thrown into a big ward full of mentally unstable women, which is supervised by a nurse named Geneviève Gleizes (Mélanie Laurent) and several other nurses working under her.

As days go by, Eugénie tries to get accustomed to her changed situation, but she is reminded again and again of how cruel and heartless her new place is to her and her fellow patients. While Nurse Gleizes and most of other nurses are not that bad at least, those male doctors of the madhouse simply regard Eugénie and other female patients as crazy people to be incarcerated and studied, and there is a gut-wrenching moment when one of the female patients is subjected to the presentation of a new therapy in from of many male doctors and then sexually exploited by one of these male doctors.

More determined to get out of the madhouse as soon as possible, Eugénie attempts to get closer to Nurse Gleizes, who initially does not believe Eugénie’s power at all but then finds herself convinced about it after Eugénie says a certain private fact which Nurse Gleizes has kept to herself for years. Around that narrative point, the movie shifts its focus a bit toward Nurse Gleizes, and we observe how barren her life has been in many aspects. She has lived fairly well with her aging father, but there is always a sad void in her private life, and now Eugénie seems to give some comfort and consolation to fill that sad void.

As recognizing more of Eugénie’s power, Nurse Gleizes also comes to care a lot about her, so she tries her best to get the approval on Eugénie’s release, but, not so surprisingly, the head doctor of the madhouse, who is incidentally based on a famous real-life neurologist at that time, does not listen to her at all, and things get worse for Eugénie when she expresses her righteous anger in front of that doctor and other doctors for an understandable reason. She is subsequently taken to the worst ward in the madhouse, and, to make matters worse, the nurse in the charge of this ward is as unflappable and merciless as Nurse Ratched.

Steadily maintaining its restrained attitude, the screenplay by director Mélanie Laurent and her co-writer Christophe Deslandes, which is based on Victoria Mas’ novel “Le bal des folles”, eventually arrives at a climactic part associated with the very title of the movie, but it stays calm as usual while gradually increasing the dramatic tension beneath the screen, and I admire how it pulls out a quiet but touching moment of female solidarity at the end of the story. While Lou de Laâge is constantly compelling to watch for the fierce intensity of her strong performance, Laurent ably complements her co-star, and Emmanuelle Bercot is also effective as one of the key supporting characters in the film.

On the whole, “The Mad Women’s Ball” is another solid work directed by Laurent, who has diligently developed a filmmaking career in addition to acting in many notable films ranging from “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) to recent Netflix film “Oxygen” (2021). As already shown from her previous film “Galveston” (2018), she is a competent director who knows how to present story and characters well on the screen, and I guess I can have more expectation on the next film on which she is working at present.

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