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TIFF: The Mad Women’s Ball is sadly far from a blitz

The Mad Women's Ball

Melanie Laurent’s adaptation of Victoria Mas’ novel about a young woman’s incarceration in a cruel asylum is disappointingly flat.

With its literary pedigree and reasonably lavish trappings, The Mad Women’s Ball wants to be seen as a sweeping and powerful drama that examines the subjugation that women suffered in the past in large part because of their gender while suggesting that too little has changed between the late 1800s and today.

In practice, it feels more like a period version of those old Women-In-Prison movies that Roger Corman produced back in the early 1970s that blended obvious exploitation elements (Nudity! Sadism! Sex! Violence!) with unexpected moments of satire and social commentary and, depending on what up-and-coming filmmaker was at the helm, perhaps even a sense of genuine cinematic style. Unfortunately, this effort from writer-director Melanie Laurent is a well-appointed, well-meaning but ultimately misfired take on an all-too-familiar narrative.

Eugenie Clery (Lou de Laage) is a feisty young woman rebelling against the restrictions placed on her because of her gender. This causes a great deal of consternation for the members of her well-to-do family. And yet, despite her sneaking off to the smoke-filled cafes of Montmartre or to attend Victor Hugo’s funeral, it is when Eugenie claims to be able to speak to spirits that her father elects to do what was too often done to women who refused to politely follow society’s conventions—commit her to the Salpetriere Asylum.

Salpetriere, a “hospital” run by noted real-life French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, swiftly proves to be little more than a warehouse in which the patients are treated for their alleged maladies with a variety of brutish quackery.

The Mad Women's Ball
Amazon Studios

Unsurprisingly, Eugenie does not fit in at Salpetriere. Her insistence that she is not mad inevitably earns her the catch-all diagnosis of “hysteria,” some extensive hydrotherapy treatments, and an extended stay in le trou. At first, head nurse Genevieve (Laurent) assumes that Eugenie is just like all the other patients when she tells Genevieve that she can contact her beloved and long-dead sister. But when Eugenie proves able to back up her paranormal claims Dead Zone-style, Genevieve becomes convinced that she is the real thing.

With Genevieve’s eyes opened to the cruelties going towards the women of Salpetriere, she becomes determined to help Eugenie escape amidst the spectacle of the Lenten Ball, an annual fundraiser for the hospital in which the patients are allowed to dress up and cavort for an evening while the cream of French society leer at them (and sometimes do much worse than that).

The Mad Women's Ball
Amazon Studios

Based on the acclaimed novel by Victoria Mas, The Mad Women’s Ball is an undeniably audacious work that brings together history, feminist theory, and spiritual matters. I cannot speak to the book but on the screen, the results are disappointingly lumpy. Eugenie’s supernatural powers never come across as anything more than a plot device, one that undermines the reality that women were confined to places like Salpetriere on the flimsiest of pretenses. Eugenie’s mildly rebellious attitude in the opening scenes would have earned her a stay on their own, without the dead getting involved.

The production is handsome, even immaculate, but it never conveys the anger and emotion necessary to transform its recreation of the past into something vivid. Even the climactic escape proves strangely underwhelming.

The Mad Women’s Ball cannot decide whether it wants to be a somber period drama or a frothy bit of trash and fails as both.

Likewise, The Mad Woman’s Ball‘sperformances only go as far as surface details. de Laage is never particularly convincing as Eugenie—instead of showing us her character’s spirit and determination to fight against the suffocating ideals of the period, she often performs like she is participating in a corset-heavy fashion shoot. Laurent does better, but never quite manages to sell the lengths that Genevieve is willing to go to to help spring the unjustly incarcerated Eugenie.

The Mad Women's Ball
Amazon Studios

The Mad Women’s Ball cannot decide whether it wants to be a somber period drama or a frothy bit of trash and fails as both. There is an angry, compelling film to be made about the very real victims of the cultural mindset towards women at the time the story is set. Unfortunately, The Mad Women’s Ball is not that film.

The Mad Women’s Ball arrives on Amazon Prime on September 17th.

The Mad Women’s Ball Trailer:

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CategoriesMovies TIFF 2021
Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.