When Victor Hugo was laid to rest in June of 1885, 40,000 people slept on the streets of Paris in order to catch a glimpse of his casket. Mélanie Laurent’s “The Mad Women’s Ball,” a clear-eyed if seldom captivating period drama adapted from the Victoria Mas bestseller of the same name, imagines that one of those mourners was a 26-year-old woman who typically communed with the dead in private, where it was all too easy for others to disbelieve her. Between her flushed beauty and immaculate breeding, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge, who also starred in Laurent’s terrific coming-of-age thriller “Breathe” ) should be the finest husband bait in all of France, but her severe wit and voracious curiosity tend to frustrate her father’s marriage plots. What good is a strong mind when it comes to carrying the next generation of powerful men?
As if Eugénie’s pesky intelligence weren’t enough of a deal-breaker unto itself, there’s also the added bonus that she claims to be visited by ghosts — spectral encounters that leave her gasping for air. While her similarly eligible brother Théophile (Benjamin Voisin) has made peace with masking his homosexuality, Eugénie refuses to act like she doesn’t have a sixth sense. And so, in the most painful scene of a film that never shies away from the suffering of women, Eugénie is betrayed by the two men closest to her and carted off to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital against her will, where she’ll become another one of the many “hysterics” kept on display by neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet), renowned for his ability to launder the patriarchy through pseudo-science and bourgeois spectacle.
The enduring relevance of a drama about the misogyny at the heart of medicine and the arrogance of men to control women’s bodies remains tragically undeniable in a way that can make a film like “The Mad Women’s Ball” — set more than a century ago and snagged on the roots of modern psychiatry — risk seeming prosaic. The gendered injustice of Charcot’s sanatorium is so out in the open and the laughable neuroscience practiced there so outmoded that it might be tempting for today’s audiences to chalk the whole thing up to a time before the unilateral pressures of birth control or the insidiousness of “pro-life” rhetoric.
The bracingly visceral nature of Laurent’s approach may have been intended to bring the past back to life, but it only widens the gap between then and now. If her unblinking focus on the indignities of life in Salpêtrière (which range from public displays of “hypnosis” to forced ice baths and sexual assault) harrowingly conveys the horrors of their age, that merciless attention to such tortures doesn’t always square with the script’s broad overtures toward women’s liberation. What starts as a historical profile of French proto-feminism — down to the first act meet-cute of sorts in which a mustached guy’s mind is blown by the sight of Eugénie reading a book — soon deteriorates into something that evokes Holocaust cinema’s abject disregard for the human body. “The Mad Women’s Ball” capably sells the fact that Salpêtrière was a naked reflection of the institutional sexism that existed outside its walls, but Laurent’s eagerness to confront the barbarism of Charcot’s hospital tends to stifle the finer details of a story that hinges on female empowerment.
“The Mad Women’s Ball” keys into the idea that men are threatened by things they don’t understand, and that women are forever their greatest mystery. The real Charcot vehemently insisted that men could also suffer from hysteria, but Laurent seizes on the power dynamic of one sex presuming to “solve” the mind and body of another; one early scene finds a room full of male doctors watching with wet-beaked awe as Louise (Lomande de Dietrich), perhaps the most tragic of Salpêtrière’s many compelling patients, is hypnotized to suck on her own fingers. To that end, De Laâge’s iron-jawed defiance makes Eugénie a curious new addition to the hospital, as the staff can’t seem to break the girl or make her admit that she doesn’t actually speak to the dead. Or does she?
With Charcot too high on the chain of command to get involved, Eugénie becomes a more urgent problem for the women who work at his pleasure: The nurses, the merciless torturer who trained them in her mold (Emmanuelle Bercot), and the less sociopathic head nurse who acts as a direct liaison to Charcot. Laurent plays Geneviève herself, embodying the character with the same fraying sternness that she brings to the film’s camerawork (which starts on rails and ends by dancing alongside the same characters that it once grabbed by the back of the neck).
Geneviève has a foot in both worlds; the daughter of a celebrated doctor, she’s leveraged the education and nepotism she inherited into a role that might otherwise have never been within a woman’s reach, but doing so has required her to internalize the misogyny of her field to the point of self-denial. It’s a moral negotiation that Geneviève has been able to maintain in the name of science, but meeting someone as sane and headstrong as Eugénie soon tests her resolve.
That should represent a chance for “The Mad Women’s Ball” to move beyond its alternating pattern of torture and grace (Coralie Russier is wonderful as a withdrawn husk of a woman who transforms into a songbird at a pivotal moment), with Eugénie being gaslit into believing her own insanity at the same time as Geneviève starts to see through the fog of her own complicity. But the catalyst of that change isn’t an emotional connection between those two women so much as Geneviève’s growing suspicion that Eugénie might actually be able to relay a letter to her dead sister. What faith could the head nurse have in her job if people who claim to see God are regarded as holy, while people who actually speak to the spirits are considered insane?
It should be compelling to watch Eugénie become a cross between the Ghost Whisperer and Salpêtrière’s very own Andy Dufresne, but these women are blunted under the weight of the miracle that connects them. Laurent wants to bring the ghosts of Salpêtrière back to life but settles for the ghosts of their ghosts instead. By the time “The Mad Women’s Ball” arrives at the high society party teased by its title — a garish spectacle at which members of the public intermingle with Charcot’s dolled-up patients, making it scandalously easy to confuse the two — it’s hard to shake the feeling that Laurent’s film has traveled an unhelpfully brutal and bizarre path back to the ever-present truth that misogyny is a madness greater than anything its own medicines could ever hope to cure.
“The Mad Women’s Ball” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, September 17.