‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ is set in 1885 and depicts the story of two women who come to have a life-changing impact on one another. Admitting to her family that she can see and communicate with the dead, Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge) is incarcerated in a psychological institution. There she meets other patients and the head nurse, Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent), who plots to help Eugénie escape after she agrees to bring her communication from her deceased sister.
‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ appears initially concerned with gender politics and the exploration of this period setting, until a scene occurs in which Eugénie sees a ghost that feels straight out of a horror film. Mélanie Laurent (who audiences will recognise from ‘Inglorious Basterds’ as well as Netflix movies like ‘Oxygen’ and ‘6 Underground’, and who directs this feature as well as starring in it) paces the movie well, keeping her audience compelled. But what she does most intriguingly is to keep her audience on their toes in that first act, as they keep guessing exactly what this movie is about.
One expects ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ vibes as Eugénie enters the institution and the character of Geneviève initially appears cool and stern. But as we meet her family and get to know more of her work, she becomes more sympathetic as you realise she is only trying to make her way in this male-dominated society. It is when we learn more of Louise (a stunning turn from Lomane de Dietrich) and witness the variety of abuses hurled at her that the penny really drops as to what Laurent is concerned with here.
Louise, chatty and friendly, makes fast friends with Eugénie, and a scene where the two women speak to one another and other patients in the night proves bittersweet. It is followed by a scene where Louise is tortured, which is followed by another beautiful moment in the church, and one is compelled to witness the fate of those incarcerated, and see how the taut relationship shared by the two lead women will evolve. Geneviève keeps you guessing as to whether she cares about these women or not, let alone if she is on their side. Eugénie has you enthralled too as to her strong resolve and pushing back against the system, which has close to swallowed Louise and the others up whole.
The feminist agenda of ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ is powerful. One of the most devastating lines in the movie is: "These women have sent you mad, it's contagious." The men constantly berate the women, supporting only one another, and the dehumanising of these women is atrocious (for Irish viewers, the history of the Magdalene laundries doesn't feel like a far cry here). It is emotional and moving to watch, but never feels manipulative. Arguably, the symbolising of women's oppression can be a bit on the nose, for example in the use of corsets, but the inequality is so abhorrent that it’s easily forgivable. ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ will surprise and stir you, leaving you with enduring characters.