When Victor Hugo was laid to rest in June of 1885, 40,000 people slept on the streets of Paris in order to catch a glimpse of his casket.
Mélanie Laurent’s “The Mad Women’s Ball,” a clear-eyed if seldom captivating period drama adapted from the Victoria Mas bestseller of the same name, imagines that one of those mourners was a 26-year-old woman who typically communed with the dead in private, where it was all too easy for others to disbelieve her. Between her flushed beauty and immaculate breeding, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge, who also starred in Laurent’s terrific coming-of-age thriller “Breathe” ) should be the finest husband bait in all of France, but her severe wit and voracious curiosity tend to frustrate her father’s marriage plots. What good is a strong mind when it comes to carrying the next generation of powerful men?
As if Eugénie’s pesky intelligence weren’t enough of a deal-breaker unto itself, there’s also the added bonus that she claims to be visited by ghosts — spectral encounters that leave her gasping for air. While her similarly eligible brother Théophile (Benjamin Voisin) has made peace with masking his homosexuality, Eugénie refuses to act like she doesn’t have a sixth sense. And so, in the most painful scene of a film that never shies away from the suffering of women, Eugénie is betrayed by the two men closest to her and carted off to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital against her will, where she’ll become another one of the many “hysterics” kept on display by neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet), renowned for his ability to launder the patriarchy through pseudo-science and bourgeois spectacle.
The enduring relevance of a drama about the misogyny at the heart of medicine and the arrogance of men to control women’s bodies remains tragically undeniable in a way that can make a film like “The Mad Women’s Ball” — set more than a century ago and snagged on the roots of modern psychiatry — risk seeming prosaic. The gendered injustice of Charcot’s sanatorium is so out in the open and the laughable neuroscience practiced there so outmoded that it might be tempting for today’s audiences to chalk the whole thing up to a time before the unilateral pressures of birth control or the insidiousness of “pro-life” rhetoric.
The bracingly visceral nature of Laurent’s approach may have been intended to bring the past back to life, but it only widens the gap between then and now. If her unblinking focus on the indignities of life in Salpêtrière (which range from public displays of “hypnosis” to forced ice baths and sexual assault) harrowingly conveys the horrors of their age, that merciless attention to such tortures doesn’t always square with the script’s broad overtures toward women’s liberation. What starts as a historical profile of French proto-feminism — down to the first act meet-cute of sorts in which a mustached guy’s mind is blown by the sight of Eugénie reading a book — soon deteriorates into something that evokes Holocaust cinema’s abject disregard for the human body. “The Mad Women’s Ball” capably sells the fact that Salpêtrière was a naked reflection of the institutional sexism that existed outside its walls, but Laurent’s eagerness to confront the barbarism of Charcot’s hospital tends to stifle the finer details of a story that hinges on female empowerment.
“The Mad Women’s Ball” keys into the idea that men are threatened by things they don’t understand, and that women are forever their greatest mystery. The real Charcot vehemently insisted that men could also suffer from hysteria, but Laurent seizes on the power dynamic of one sex presuming to “solve” the mind and body of another; one early scene finds a room full of male doctors watching with wet-beaked awe as Louise (Lomande de Dietrich), perhaps the most tragic of Salpêtrière’s many compelling patients, is hypnotized to suck on her own fingers. To that end, De Laâge’s iron-jawed defiance makes Eugénie a curious new addition to the hospital, as the staff can’t seem to break the girl or make her admit that she doesn’t actually speak to the dead. Or does she?
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