THE MAD WOMEN’S BALL (Le bal des folles)
Amazon Prime
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mélanie Laurent
Writer: Mélanie Laurent based on the novel Le bal des folles by Victoria Mas
Cast: Mélanie Laurent, Lou de Laâge, Benjamin Voisin, Emmanuelle Bercot, Martine Chevallier
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/2/21
Opens: September 17, 2021

The idea that the really crazy ones are those who supervise the so-called psychotics is one idea we carry away from this film, but overall, “The Man Women’s Ball” fits in with the wealth of feminist offerings. Those who do not fit into society—think of Randle Patrick McMurphy from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” who chose to serve a sentence in a psychiatric hospital instead of prison—are often bullied and persecuted by those who are in charge of supervising them. Think of Nurse Ratched in the same film.

In Mélanie Laurent’s adaptation of Victoria Mas’s novel “Les bal des folles,” Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) is a perfectly normal woman living in late-19th century Paris, who embarrasses her rich, stick-up-his-butt father by speaking her mind, but what really disturbs her old man is that she claims to see spirits. Since daughters are expected to be chips off the old block, the father believes his daughter’s actions threaten his own career. She wants to be in the audience for a salon debate in which her brother Théophile (Benjamin Voisin) is participating, but even that is considered an off-the-wall idea by dad because she is a woman. Topping it all off, she visits the Montmartre, considered the Greenwich Village of its time even in 1885, reads poetry, and is hit upon by a patron. Brash behavior indeed.

Eugénie has an ally in her brother, who will add Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent) to his side later. Hustled off to a psychiatric institution, France’s famous (or infamous) Salpêtrière, she is thrust among a group of women, some of whom are guilty of crimes such as one prostitute who pushed her pimp into the Seine, others who are merely prostitutes, and still more who are deemed idiots and thereby unable to mix in polite society. But the only “fault” of Eugénie is that she communicates with the spirits, which we soon learn is not fakery when she sits in a room with various inmates and nurses and tells them what only their own relatives could know.

Some of the details in this thriller come right out of history, particularly the depiction of the head of the hospital, Jean-Martin Chacot (Grégoire Bonnet), a neurologist who likes to label women in his charge as victims of hysteria, and holds that if he is able to hypnotize them, as he does with Louise (Lomane de Dietrich), they may safely be labeled victims of hysteria.

There are a few good guys in the story, particularly her brother Théophile who, together with head nurse Geneviève, is determined to help her escape the snake pit, and in fact you can’t blame most of the inmates who are either on her side or neutral. The bad guys are particularly Dr. Chacot and one nurse who panics when Eugénie speaks to the spirit of the nurse’s mother, who informs Eugénie that she forgives what her daughter did.

The escape scene arrives during the title dance, as the inmates dress in costumes and dance with young men who attend the ball dressed to the nines. The women disguise themselves as columbines, gypsies, and musketeers, yet this is yet another experiment by the famed Dr. Charcot to show the control he exhibits over these poor women. The film might be called a hymn to freedom for all women whom the nineteenth century tried to silence. One contemporary situation comes to mind: that of Britney Spears who was committed to a psychiatric ward and whose father and his attorney have taken over her assets in a conservatorship.

“The Mad Women’s Ball” is filmed by Nicolas Karakatsanis in bright colors, with some exceptional, wide-screened shots of the ball, one which finds the women dancing with the men and acting as normal as anyone you’ll find on the street today. The alliance between Eugénie and Geneviève represents the heart of the film, one which may not be as commercial as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or “The Snake Pit,” all the better for focusing on its true thrust: the way some women even to this day and even in America are, as Joan Baez sings, “Always controlled/ Always confined.”

121 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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