“The Mad Woman’s Ball,” a new Gothic, French language thriller now streaming on Amazon Prime, is a human look at the dehumanizing oppression foisted upon patients at Paris’s notorious 19th century Pitié-Salpêtrière psychiatric hospital.
Young socialite Eugénie Cléry’s (Lou de Laâge) father is not happy. Her rebellious behaviour, like
sneaking off to read poetry and smoke at cafes, offends his deeply conformist world view. Even worse is her newfound belief in spiritualism. Eugénie believes she can communicate with the dead. Those encounters leave her in a state of anxiety and cher vieux papa Cléry is having none of it. Embarrassed, he forcefully commits her to Pitié-Salpêtrière, a women’s hospital specializing in experimental treatments devised by Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet).
Diagnosed as “hysterical,” she finds solace in the company of Geneviève (Laurent), a sympathetic nurse who believes Eugénie doesn’t belong at the facility. Together they plan the young woman’s escape on the night of the hospital’s degrading “Bal des Folles,” (Mad Woman’s Ball) where Paris elite mix with the clinic’s patients.
An adaptation from the 2019 book by Victoria Mas, “The Mad Woman’s Ball” is a melodramatic story of survival set against the backdrop of the barbaric beginnings of psychiatric medicine.
Director Laurent paints an evocative picture of life inside the 19th century hospital. Laughs and screams fill the air as Laurent’s camera details the gothic details of the facility. On the inside intimidation and oppression loom heavy, but the storytelling is compassionate. Eugénie and Geneviève are soldiers in the fight against fight against misogyny, personified by men like the arrogant Professor Charcot and Eugénie’s father, who oppress them and ultimately, misunderstand them.
It’s powerful storytelling, buoyed by wonderful performances, marred only by the occasionally overwrought contrivance. “The Mad Woman’s Ball” is best in its quiet moments between Eugénie and Geneviève when the power of their solidarity is heightened.