The Mad Women’s Ball (2021)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Oxygen (2021)

It’s not unusual for a high-concept, single-location sci-fi thriller to quietly emerge on Netflix to little fanfare.  That’s a regular routine for the streaming behemoth, which is wholeheartedly committed to a quantity-over-quality ethos (give or take the few high-profile projects a year it desperately promotes for Oscars attention).  It is unusual, however, to immediately recognize the director & star of said sci-fi streaming schlock.  I was under the impression that the bulk of Netflix’s disposable sci-fi was entirely generated by algorithm, the same as Hallmark Christmas movies and SyFy Channel mockbusters.  I was shocked, then, to stumble onto Oxygen, the latest film from Crawl and High Tension director Alexandre Aja.  Oxygen is visually and effectively indistinguishable from any generic sci-fi cheapie that magically populates on the Netflix homescreen from week to week, despite Aja’s usual command over in-the-moment tension and the obvious talents of his main collaborator, Inglorious Basterds star Melanie Laurent.  I also can’t fault Aja for collecting a pandemic paycheck where he could; after all, someone’s gotta point the camera in the right direction before the algorithm autofills the rest of the details.

I will admit that for the first fifteen minutes or so of Oxygen, Aja does feel alive and actively engaged with the material.  The film opens with a kind of humanoid egg hatching, with Laurent emerging from a synthetic skin sack inside what appears to be an Apple-store purchased iCoffin.  Confused about who she is or how she got there, she fights against the restraints that keep her in place inside the locked sleeping pod to no avail.  The flashing emergency lights, warnings of drained oxygen levels, and emerging hallucinations & memories that introduce us to this far-fetched, high concept scenario are effectively nerve-racking . . . for a while.  Then, Oxygen stops being a shock-a-second thriller and settles into mystery-box sci-fi at its emptiest.  Laurent’s distraught future-prisoner solves the mystery of her own past and her current predicament by effectively Googling herself for the rest of the runtime, with the aid of a voice-command Internet surrogate.  If you strip away a couple jump scares and CG-aided camera twirls, the film is basically just someone talking to an iTunes visualizer for two hours.  That set-up is no more thrilling now than it was when your buddy Kevin tripped too hard on mushrooms and debated a laptop screen in your 2007 dorm room.

It’s not impossible to sustain feature-length tension with just one on-screen character and a series of phone calls and Google searches.  It’s wild how much more tension I felt in Locke, for instance, where there’s pretty much no visual flavor and the movie’s basically about listening to concrete dry.  And, hell, if there was ever going to be a time to release a film about someone being isolated in a small, locked space with only a series of talking screens to connect them to the outside world, this might be it.  Still, there’s nothing about Oxygen that stands out from the week-to-week sci-fi sludge that oozes up from the streaming service sewer grates on Netflix, despite the pedigree of the names behind it.  I was basically pleading out loud at my television for more boobytraps and fewer Google searches by the end of the film, which I doubt is the kind of squirming-in-your seat anguish Aja was aiming for.  If I was that desperate for a new sci-fi release where a trapped woman makes a series of desperate phone calls, I should have just rewatched the bizarro action-horror Shadow in the Cloud.  At least that one has some personality to it, albeit a goofy one.

-Brandon Ledet