Has there ever been a more convenient weapon for upholding sexism than the use of women’s emotions against themselves? For girls from the youngest age, expressing any feeling has to be carefully considered. Be too upset about what’s happening to you —no matter how terrible, you’re hysterical — but be too quiet and you must have lost your mind. May your voice be neither too low — for how could you be attractive if you resemble a man in any way — nor too high, because no one likes a shrill lady. May you walk the path your father has set out for you, may you keep your dignity in the way the men before you have defined it.
And if you happen to be alive in 19th century France, try not to see too many ghosts.
Eugénie (Lou de Laâge, in her second collaboration with director Mélanie Laurent) is at the height of privilege for a woman of her era; she is from a rich family, well read and well fed, escaping her controlling father’s grasp often and enjoying her adoring brother’s affection. There’s only one problem: she is, without a shadow of a doubt, able to see and communicate with spirits, and such a talent is not taken too kindly in her world. Once the eldest of the Cléry family learns about her cursed gift, they decide to institutionalise her in one of Paris’ most well-known asylums.
The main strength of The Mad Women’s Ball is that it never once questions Eugénie’s psychic abilities. The camera never shows us the ghosts she speaks of, but the narrative never gives us any option but to believe her. These are not vengeful spirits or a story revolving in any major way around the paranormal, as most ghosts would struggle to compete with the terror that real life and history inspire. Considering that so much of her suffering in the film is based on the lack of trust that those around her put in her words, it is an obvious statement that the narrative chooses to simply and wholeheartedly believe her. Although they are not explored to the same extent, the same applies to the other women populating the asylum and keeping Eugénie company, never giving us a chance to dehumanise them. Whether they are falsely imprisoned out of convenience for their family, or truly suffer from a not-yet-treatable mental illness, there is no doubt that their time under their Doctor’s supervision does little to help them.
Laurent is most well known as a director to international audiences for her sophomore feature Breathe, where the intensity of teenage friendships was deeply explored in a thriller-like fashion. De Laâge proves as soon as the film starts that she is capable of excelling both as a villain and a victim protagonist that we want to root for despite extremely unfavourable odds. While the two films may seem completely different outside of their lead actress, they both share a common thread in successfully exploring the influence of patriarchy on women in an extremely subtle way, thankfully avoiding gratuitous violence. The female characters are at the centre of the narrative, and there are undeniably power dynamics between them, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Even the nurses are controlled by the male doctors experimenting and taking advantage of their female prisoners, making it unbelievably easy for them to be demoted to the same level of respect that the inmates receive. Any amount of power a woman can have is fragile and finite, too entrenched in a society that resolutely refuses to see her as a human being.
Although such a setting could make it easy to turn the film into tasteless misery porn, Laurent’s direction remains for the most part tactful and aesthetically perfect, perhaps to an unnatural extent. It is hard to ignore that even in their most dire states, the isolated and tortured young women remain beautiful, their soft skin intact, their pink lips plump and wavy hair untangled, and it is sometimes impossible to believe that anyone could have stepped in to make them as conventionally attractive as they are now. A scene paralleling Eugénie and her lead nurse (Geneviève, who will soon become a key piece in the narrative, played by Laurent herself) removing their corsets in entirely different contexts shows that Laurent does have an awareness of the way these women’s looks are controlled and influence their treatment or lack thereof, but the statements end up ringing a bit hollow when the film does nothing to subvert them.
However, any issues to be taken with The Mad Women’s Ball are truly a question of nitpicking; overall, it remains an excellently acted, truly emotional exploration of the horrific reality of life as a woman in the 19th century even amongst the highest circles of society. It is a difficult watch without falling into the trap of exploitation and showcases some of the most interesting talent to watch out for in modern French cinema.
The Mad Women’s Ball is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from September 17th
by Callie Hardy
Callie (she/her) is a Belgian New Media student currently living in Dublin. She enjoys female-fronted horror, nostalgic adaptations of childhood classics and every outfit Blake Lively wears in A Simple Favor. She’s usually pretty honest, but if you catch her saying that her favourite film is anything other than Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, you should know that she’s lying. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.