Mélanie Laurent adapted, directed and starred The crazy woman ball (Bal Des Folles), a French Amazon Original that premiered in the Galas section of the Toronto International Film Festival. Lou de Laâge, who worked with Laurent in Breathe, participates in the moving story of oppressed women in late 19th century France. Based on the novel by Victoria Mas, it mixes real characters with fictional ones in the disturbing setting of a mental institution.
Eugénie (de Laâge) is a well-kept French girl who thirsts for education and experiences men that her brother can enjoy. She also sees dead people – not all the time, but enough to worry about her family. “I know what’s going on with girls like you,” says Eugénie’s worried brother, and surely her father will soon drive her to La Pitié Salpétrière Hospital, the real clinic in Paris run by the famous neurology pioneer Dr. Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet).
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Charcot is not completely celebrated by patients, whether they are humiliated in public hypnosis demonstrations or tortured with ice baths in the name of “hydrotherapy”. But Eugénie’s way with the dead may just be her lifeline when she discovers that nurse Geneviève (Laurent) is grieving over her sister and longing to hear from her.
While the premise has a paranormal theme, the tone of stylized realism – we never see the spirits Eugénie claims, is only the trance that overtakes her when she receives messages from outside. These are mainly used to propel the action forward rather than create a sense of mystical mysticism, even though their truth suggests that she has a real gift.
Laurent’s main focus is on women’s daily lives in the build-up to the title ball, when they are dressed and parade around for the fascination and lechery of the overall men. It is women who are diagnosed with everything from epilepsy to “hysteria”, the guilt of men and the punishment of women who accept men’s orders.
As Laurent highlights the bitter reality of women in this patriarchal institution, the tone swings toward feminist prison drama. But there is also the flicker of joy that eases the strain and gives a feeling of warmth between the women. Whether they laugh, bond or comfort each other, women connect in a way that feels believable and heartwarming without being sentimental – there are nuances of Girl, interrupted here.
There’s a striking scene where a patient breaks into song in church – these are the kind of women who later in history would be celebrated for their extraordinary talents, rather than being locked inside.
Performances are strong; Laurent, the conflict-ridden, intercepted nurse, de Laâge, the stubborn and beautiful mystic. The parallels between the two central characters are communicated mainly visually: Laurent and film photographer Nicolas Karakatsanis reinforce their similarities with several scenes in which they reflect positions – one locked inside, another free, but in his own kind of inner prison.
The film’s ending feels a bit hasty, but this is still a gripping period piece that tells a compelling story of sisterhood and survival and bodes well for Laurent’s next feminist feature, The Nightingale.