The latest of many actor/director co-credits from Mélanie Laurent, The Mad Women’s Ball, is a solemn period drama set in a prison-like mental institution in 19th Century France. It’s a formulaic film in a lot of respects, touching on every dramatic cliché you’d expect in its women’s sanitorium setting. There’s nothing new here you won’t see in goofier, better-publicized works like Girl Interrupted, Cosi, Unsane, or your local drag scene’s cabaret parody of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And yet, those clichés are all performed so earnestly in The Mad Women’s Ball that their familiarity hardly matters. At the risk of repeating a cliché observation myself, Mélanie Laurent’s extensive background as an actor shows in her filmmaking’s focus on performance & characterization, two details that add enough specificity & emotional impact to the central drama that it avoids backsliding into tedium.
It helps that the ghost story half of The Mad Women’s Ball actually does manage to feel novel, in that it takes the existence & presence of “spirits” seriously without forcing an illustration of them onscreen or tipping the tone into horror. Our POV character (Lou de Laâge) is the kind of stubborn, free-thinking intellectual who would routinely get institutionalized for “hysteria” by their embarrassed, cold-hearted families in this era. Except, she also suffers the burden of constant communication with spirits of the dead which, as you can imagine, are in no short supply in her new asylum/prison/home. She slowly earns her way out of confinement by proving her supernatural connection with these spirits to her nurses & guards (including Laurent as her sole kind-hearted advocate), helping them reconnect with ghosts of their past in exchange for the promise of freedom. Meanwhile, she finds uneasy, unlikely sisterhood with her fellow “patients,” who range from genuinely ill to politically troublesome, like herself.
As the title implies, The Mad Women’s Ball culminates in a grand masquerade where the local wealth class is invited on asylum grounds to gawk at (and sexually violate) its patients as they dressed in costume – apparently a very real, very fucked up tradition in some mental institutions at the time. Until that physical convergence of life inside & outside the asylum, Laurent contrasts their parallel timelines with an aggressive crosscutting effect, her one major stylistic imposition on the plot. Otherwise, the film’s aesthetic recalls the melancholic Bates-in-prison episodes of Downton Abbey, with the chaotic echoes of unwell women resisting “therapy” (i.e., torture) echoing throughout its dank, joyless hallways. This is a long, somber, delicate film with only occasional flashes of musical accompaniment. The contrasting crosscuts between life inside & outside the asylum are absolutely essential to giving it a sense of vibrancy, and it makes total sense that its narrative would have to resolve with those two worlds crashing into each other.
Outside those crosscuts, I’m not sure Laurent does much to call attention to her craft as a filmmaker here. She mostly just provides a stage for her characters & performers to shine, treating their individual quirks & personae with full respect – whether they’re a bipolar pickpocket with a wicked mean streak or a spiritual medium whose genuine talent for communication with the dead is misunderstood for madness. Laurent chose to direct a film set in a time that was brutally unkind to women, seemingly so she could extend kindness & empathy to them in retrospect. It’s surprisingly heartwarming, despite the institutional cruelty & cultural familiarity of its setting.