The French actor-director Mélanie Laurent delivers a feminist melodrama about the abuses of a Paris hospital in the 19th century.
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In its opening moments, “The Mad Women’s Ball” slowly focuses on the nape of a woman’s neck and the swirl of her hair pinned in a bun. It is an image that may recall Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Here it confirms that the director Mélanie Laurent’s drama — set in Paris in the late 1800s and based on a novel by Victoria Mas — will indeed touch on horrors.
The daughter of a status-driven father, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) appears haunted by spirits. Talking with her grandmother or readying for bed, she’ll begin rapidly breathing, trembling, staring at something that no one else sees. She also tends to speak her mind. To the heartbreak of her loving brother (Benjamin Voisin), Eugénie is committed by her father to the asylum where a diagnosis of hysteria has become all the rage. The soiree of the title was an actual event thrown at the Salpêtrière hospital during the tenure of the famed neurologist, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot.
Depicted here, the gathering is as grotesque as one might fear. It is also a high point in the patients’ comradeship. Eugénie becomes a catalyst, nudging the head nurse, Geneviève (portrayed by Laurent), toward doubts about the ethics of her beloved institution.
Laurent has made an elegant if overheated melodrama that amplifies the villainy of Charcot and his colleagues (one proves particularly appalling) to underscore how male-centered the medical establishment was — and is. A feminist work, “The Mad Women’s Ball” grapples, too, with the ways women can be complicit. Emmanuelle Bercot does chilly work as Jeanne, the nurse Charcot calls on to manage Eugénie’s solitary confinement. Move over, Nurse Ratched.
The Mad Women’s Ball
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. Watch on Amazon.