The Mad Women’s Ball is a French film on Amazon Prime about a smart, recalcitrant upper-class woman, Eugénie, (Lou de Laâge) who is committed to the renowned Salpêtrière sanitorium after she confesses to her family that she communes with dead people. Salpêtrière is a legitimate teaching hospital, but also a convenient place to stash misbehaving or unwanted women using spurious diagnoses. The patients are subjected to tortuous treatments such as ice baths, and upsetting experiments involving hypnosis by the legendary Dr. Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet). When she arrives, Eugénie meets head nurse Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent), who seems hardened to the suffering of the women. Over time, Eugénie befriends the women on the ward as well as Geneviève, whose help she will need to escape during the Mad Women’s Ball, an fancy party where upper-class men come to the asylum to fulfill their prurient desires with the patients, who are dressed in costumes. Although the film is fiction, it is based on real events that happened in Paris in the 1800s.
– The film The Mad Women’s Ball is based on the novel by Victoria Mas. You can buy it here. (affiliate link)-
Eugénie, who comes from an upper-class family, chafes against the expectations placed on her. While her brother (Benjamin Voisin) gets to attend debates and go to school, Eugénie’s sole task is to find a good husband. Instead, she sneaks out of the house to sit in low-rent cafes and read forbidden books. Periodically, the dead come to her in a spooky manner that takes over her body. When her family realizes what’s going on, Eugénie is swiftly carted off to Salpêtrière. She is immediately befriended by the gregarious Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), who was placed in the asylum after she complained about her uncle molesting her. Louise is a subject of Dr. Charcot’s hypnosis experiments, which cause a type of seizure that he captures in photographs. For her part, Geneviève, whose father was a doctor, has dedicated herself to Dr. Charcot and the science of neurology. But she is not cruel. Eugénie, and her gift of talking to the dead open Geneviève’s eyes to the exploitation of the women, culminating in the ghastly Mad Women’s Ball, where the costumed women are given a “party” with the upper crust of Paris.
Salpêtrière was an actual sanitorium led by the famous Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, whose students included Freud and Tourette, among others. Known as “the father of neurology”, he did groundbreaking work, diagnosing Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s diseases. It’s true that Charcot was known for his unorthodox treatment of “hysterical” women, including placing them under hypnosis. But to his credit, he really thought they could be cured neurologically. Eventually he conceded that it was a psychological problem. He also believed that hysteria wasn’t limited to women, but of course, they were the easiest subjects to obtain. Although exploitative, Charcot’s work informed how we think about PTSD today. But why he thought that yearly ball was a good idea is beyond me.
Our Take on The Mad Women’s Ball
The concepts behind The Mad Women’s Ball are not new. Since the beginning of time, inconvenient women have been institutionalized with the mentally ill, and there are certainly plenty of movies and series about it. The society that is created among the patients has also been covered, in Girl, Interrupted, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and more. But that doesn’t take away from the quality of this film. Written and directed by star Mélanie Laurent, The Mad Women’s Ball is an engaging and heartbreaking film. And although it features a well-tread subject, the lush Belle Epoque setting and signature debasements at Salpêtrière provide the film a uniqueness that keeps it fresh. That it is based on true events lends it a certain gravitas, and serves as a stark reminder that, in many places around the world, women still don’t have control over their futures or their bodies.
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