TIFF Review: 'The Mad Women's Ball' Interrogates History's Cruel Treatment of Women Directed by Mélanie Laurent

Starring Lou de Laâge, Mélanie Laurent, Emmanuelle Bercot, Benjamin Voisin, Cédric Khan, Lomane De Dietrich, Christophe Montenez, Grégoire Bonnet
TIFF Review: 'The Mad Women's Ball' Interrogates History's Cruel Treatment of Women Directed by Mélanie Laurent
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The overwhelming sound of clanging bells and deep, long notes of violin welcome the audience to the gothic atmosphere of 19th century Paris. Writer-director Mélanie Laurent's The Mad Women's Ball could have begun with the words, "Based on a true story." While her screenplay is adapted from Victoria Mas's novel of the same name, it's a real tale of women's strength and suffering. Both moving and macabre, the film looks back at the infamous Salpêtrière Asylum and those institutionalized there, leading up to Parisian society's favourite event of the year. The ball is where the upper classes come to gawk, but for the patients, it's a night rewarded with a sense of normalcy — where they're simply women. Laurent is honest, but also gentle in her treatment of her film's subject matter and themes of grief, trauma and sisterhood.

Disobedient wives, sex workers and those with "female hysteria," for example, were often locked away in mental institutions. That's where Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) finds herself. Born into the bourgeoisie, she's told to keep up appearances, but she's a rebel who's not afraid to say what's on her mind, and she would rather smoke and read in dingy bars than stay in the restrictions of home. To make matters worse, she sees dead people, and when her family finds out, they send her to Salpêtrière.

Women's screams flood the background, feeling like a horror film, as she's guided through the halls of her new home, which is under the leadership of the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his controversial methods of hypnosis. Geneviève (Laurent) is the head nurse, and both her and Eugénie's connection with the dead binds them. Their bond leads to Geneviève aiding Eugénie in attaining freedom, changing the course of both their lives forever.

Laurent and de Laâg are powerhouses, and their chemistry is felt onscreen from the moment they meet. The film is set in a very chaotic environment, but each character is treated with Laurent's gentle touch and sympathetic eye. She frames every woman as three-dimensional, not simply defined by her illness. It's also interesting how she frames Eugénie, making her eyes her most prominent feature, with her gaze guiding the story forward. With a gorgeous score elevating emotions, the film is at times hard to watch due to its honesty, but there are touching moments and joyfulness sprinkled throughout. In the end, The Mad Women's Ball is a tribute to the strength of women.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 18. Get info about in-person and online screenings at the festival website. (Amazon Prime)