Dir: Mélanie Laurent
Over the past decade, and now five films, French actress Mélanie Laurent has quietly built a low-key but high-quality directorial career. Here she reunites with Lou de Laâge, one of the leads from her 2014 film, Breathe and takes the other lead role herself. Laurent surrounds herself with talented collaborators. Emmanuelle Bercot brings experience and authority as a much less empathetic nurse, who runs the isolation cells in the hospital. On the other hand, Lomane de Dietrich makes a big impression in her first feature as Louise; a fellow patient of Eugénie’s who thinks her relationship with one of the junior doctors will be her route out of the asylum. The supporting cast, filling out the background in the asylum, give the place a sense of life; sometimes nightmarish but also often as somewhere that the inmates—many of them not ill at all by today’s standards—find camaraderie. The supporting players don’t have much development, but they give a feeling that there are stories behind each of these faces and why they are in this place, it’s just that we’re following Eugénie’s experience.
The screenplay layers in a feminist point of view, about how a society controlled by men locked women away rather than deal with their problems, real or imagined. It’s not difficult to see contemporary resonance here in how women may not be institutionalised for such prosaic reasons anymore, but are still frequently dismissed as ‘hysterical’ as a way to avoid dealing with what they are saying. It’s also interesting that the story (adapted by Laurent from a novel by Victoria Mas) chooses not to entirely heroise Geneviève by making her awakening about being a moderniser in how they treat the patients as a whole, but because she comes to believe in Eugénie’s contact with the dead when she passes a message from her deceased sister. Where the writing, and the film as a whole, falls down, is in giving the story real force. While it drives the narrative, and in one scene Laurent movingly plays Geneviève’s gratitude at what she believes is contact with her sister, we don’t get a lot of sense of the background of the tragedy. This lack of weight is also present in the other sibling relationship in the film, between Eugénie and her brother Theo (Benjamin Voisin). He appears a couple of times, once to beg Geneviève to give his sister a book, but the sense of the guilt the character presumably feels for being in on the plan to commit his sister or the scheming to save her just isn’t there. Perhaps the best-developed relationship in the film is between Eugénie and Louise, and fittingly Lou de Laâge and Lomane de Dietrich (a name to keep an eye on in the future) give the film’s most complete performances and play off each other very well.
Where Laurent excels here is often in the film’s imagery. Not only does she create a world that feels definitively removed from the outside within the walls of the asylum, but she and DP Nicolas Karakatsanis also capture the different aspects of that world viscerally, from the cold greyness of the ice bath treatments to the strange spectacle of Louise being hypnotised until she has a seizure in front of a group of doctors who stroke their beards, talk around her and ignore her distress. The ball of the title has a feeling that captures a sort of pantomime version of the opulence of the opening scenes with Eugénie and her rich family but has an edge of danger that the scenes between the inmates only otherwise have when the staff; uniformed and stern-faced, come to take one of them for a treatment. Worse than all of this is the featureless dungeon of the isolation cells, which Laurent makes claustrophobic in a way none of the rest of the asylum feels. On top of the well-drawn environment, there are some sharp editing choices here that draw parallels between various different characters and moments. Most effective is a cross-cut of Eugénie and Geneviève each removing their corsets; the patient in her dungeon and the nurse in her bedroom.
The Mad Women’s Ball isn’t so startling a film as Laurent’s last directorial effort, Galveston. There’s nothing here that marks her work out quite so much as that film’s extremely tense third act tracking shot of Ben Foster trying to escape a warehouse. That said, even if bits don’t hit with the impact you might hope for, this is still a fine showcase for Mélanie Laurent the director. She draws excellent performances from her whole cast, herself included, and makes her visuals appropriately alternately rich and dingy, rhyming those choices intelligently in the structure. I wish there was a little more to make us feel these events the way the characters do, but this is still engaging, quality filmmaking.