There is the famous 1887 painting by André Brouillet entitled “Clinical Lessons in Salpêtrière.” Inside, a room full of men witnessed a strange demonstration taking place in front of the room. A man stood beside a table filled with medical equipment. A woman in a loose corset, her breasts almost exposed, collapsed into a man’s arms. His left hand was clenched in a claw. This disturbing tableau depicts the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, best known for what he considers a breakthrough treatment of mental illness at the Pitié-Salpêtrière psychiatric hospital in Paris. He often gives demonstrations of his methodology, using actual patients. This painting was recreated in Mélanie Laurent’s “The Mad Women’s Ball”, an interesting and lively adaptation of Victoria Mas’
Each scene pulsates with urgency and emotion. Nothing is unimportant. At the same time, the film is very controlled, with a script that is guaranteed to be tight. Laurent, who also did the adaptation, deftly puts the two separate narratives together, walking side by side at high speed until they intersect.
Eugénie (Lou de Laâge), a rich but rebellious young woman, is committed to Salpêtrière against her will by her father (Cédric Kahn), who worries that his daughter sometimes talks to (and listens to) the dead. He was pushed into a dungeon building more than a hospital, filled with the howls and wails of women. Laurent, an accomplished actress, best known for her role in “Inglourious Basterds,” plays Geneviève, the head nurse, who is present at Eugénie’s traumatic intake. Geneviève was unsmiling and cold in the face of Eugénie’s terror. It seems at first that Geneviève is the Ratched Nurse. Cold water runs in, though. Geneviève is full of surprises.
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The hostel is a nightmare, with women screaming and fighting or getting lost in a catatonic state. An excited patient named Louise (Lomane de Dietrich) takes Eugénie under his wing. Louise told Eugénie about her fiancé, a doctor, and there was something too frantic about this statement. Taken together, these things not only perpetuate the madness, they create it. Many of these women are not “crazy” at all. They were high-pitched, perhaps, or “hysterical” (colloquially), some had epilepsy, and—in Louise’s case—clear evidence of sexual trauma. The treatments—bloodbath, magnetic therapy, hydrotherapy, isolation—were barbaric. Occasionally, one of these traumatized women is pushed out in front of an audience, the man in Brouillet’s painting, to be hypnotized by Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet). Charcot has turned the sanctuary into a venue for performances, culminating in a bizarre “ball” costume, where the public comes to gawk at the “crazy woman,” all in costume.
Eugenie’s problem wasn’t that she was “crazy.” It was because he actually spoke to the dead, and he refused to admit his guilt, even under extreme pressure. How he ends up using a gift that gets him so much trouble is one of the joys of this often disappointing film. It’s not what you’d expect, and it involves Geneviève. In many ways, women’s “whispering networks” are the true story here, of how women convey information clandestinely, invisible to the misogynistic culture that overwhelms them.
Laurent watches all the women in the dorms closely, letting them be individuals, not just the general backdrop for Eugénie’s journey. Laurent’s approach fills the scene with life: characters emerge, stories, tragedies, whispers and passes. The film doesn’t “glare” at women like the men at the demonstrations do. This film loves them, cares for them.
Multiple storylines emerge simultaneously, and the sequences are encouraging, tense, even thrilling. Asaf Avidan’s simple but effective score is used throughout, the sad cello and sad violin pulsing below the screen. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis shoots films with sensitivity and care: the camera only moves when it has to, and when it does, it helps increase the momentum of the film. There is a sequence consisting of a series of eerie inanimate objects: porcelain teapot, damask curtains, silver hairbrush … remnants of a woman’s life, what will