Review: 'The Mad Women's Ball' Shows Misogyny and Ableism in a 19th Century Hospital

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 17, 2021

'The Mad Women's Ball'
'The Mad Women's Ball'  (Source:Amazon Prime)

Women-centric period pieces often show the sexist confines women endured. "The Mad Women's Ball" is a piercing, compelling, and disturbing look at historical institutional oppression.

Directed and co-written by Mélanie Laurent (her sixth directorial feature), the French film is an adaptation of Victoria Mas's novel "Le bal des folles." It premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. "The Mad Women's Ball" stars Lou de Laâge, who also starred in Laurent's 2014 film "Respire," and Laurent herself.

Set in 1885 France, the film centers on Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) a 26-year-old woman born to a wealthy family. She shares a close relationship with her brother, Théophile (Benjamin Voisin). She possesses the uncanny ability to hear and talk to spirits. When her secret is revealed, her father commits her, against her will, to a psychiatric hospital. There, she meets many other women patients, including Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), whom she befriends, as well as Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent), the grieving head nurse.

Eugénie is determined to leave the hospital. She tries to enlist the help of Geneviève by sharing that Geneviève's deceased sister talks to her. When Eugénie reveals details about her sister she couldn't possibly know, Geneviève — who's been devoted to science — slowly begins to question her work.

Louise tells Eugénie why some of the other women are in the hospital: Depression, murder, and surviving rape. A woman with Down's syndrome is a patient. While some of the women need medical care, others are forced there as punishment. The women are prescribed various treatments, including laudanum, hypnosis, magnet therapy, and bloodletting. Dr. Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) routinely places Louise under hypnosis as a spectacle to show other doctors. A disturbing scene involves Eugénie's treatment of hydrotherapy. She's forcibly put into a metal bathtub of ice water with a strapped-down lid on top so she can't escape. There's a triggering, disturbing rape scene in the film. While it's important to confront rape culture, this scene feels needlessly salacious and exploitative. This is a difficult film to watch, thanks to the brutal, sexist, and ableist mistreatment of women that's on display.

Lou de Laâge gives a towering performance. She conveys Eugénie's spectrum of emotions: Her assertive defiance, her rage against injustice and mistreatment, her terror in isolation, and her tenderness towards those she cares about. The rest of the cast is solid. The women seek respite in their conversations, talking about food they crave and what they would do if they were free. They often nurture and help each other.

No women of color are at the hospital. It's strange that there are no queer women in the film, as queer women were hospitalized for not adhering to heteronormative roles.

While an adaptation of a novel, the narrative is rooted in historical figures and medical practices. The Salpetriere Hospital is a real hospital in France. The characters are a mélange of fictitious and real people. Dr. Charcot was a famous neurosurgeon who studied "hysterics" in women patients. Louise was a real patient of Charcot's. Her real last name, Gleizes, is Genvieve's last name in the film. Elements of Charcot's other famous patient, Marie Whitman (not a character in the film), were parceled out among a few characters.

When Louise is wheeled into an exam room, half her face and body are frozen after hypnosis. Eugénie angrily blames the doctors. The camera follows Eugénie as she's lowered by several doctors and nurses. As an ether-soaked cloth is placed over her mouth, the camera tilts down towards Eugénie, symbolizing her powerlessness. Charcot calls Eugénie "dangerous," and talks about her like she's a virus, putting her in isolation.

Slightly discordant, the film's descending violin score evokes an ominous, sinister, and foreboding ambiance. Before Eugénie is committed, the mise en scène reifies the infantilization of women through childhood toys, along with markers of stereotypical femininity and beauty. The film subtly highlights the class dichotomy, juxtaposing Eugénie's leisurely, wealthy family with a maid and her work. Through Eugénie's father correcting her posture, and scenes of tightening corsets, the film conveys the strict, sexist societal expectations for women prohibiting their freedom and controlled their bodies and behavior, keeping women docile and obedient. Eugénie and Louise each compare the objectifying treatment of women to the treatment of animals. Louise explicitly says they're "treated worse than animals."

"The Mad Women's Ball" compellingly and excellently depicts an atmosphere of misogyny, control, and gaslighting. It effectively shows how all women, even a wealthy privileged woman like Eugénie, were susceptible to being forcibly committed for their "deviance." While the film touches on the horrors the women endure and their dire circumstances, its tight focus on Eugénie and Geneviève means the other women get shortchanged, rather than showing the full scope of institutional oppression. While the film conveys how women can be complicit in oppression —†which is important — its broad strokes insinuate that all women suffer the same when marginalized women (queer women, women of color, trans women, non-binary people, disabled women, women in poverty) suffer disproportionately due to intersecting identities.

"The Mad Women's Ball" streams on Amazon Prime on September 17, 2021.