Mélanie Laurent’s The Mad Women’s Ball suffers in comparison to Alice Winocour’s Augustine (2011), which tackles the same story with more psychological complexity.
It’s never a good idea to follow in Alice Winocour’s footsteps. The French director’s 2012 feature debut, Augustine, chronicled the relationship between Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon) and Augustine (Soko), his star patient of female hysteria, in nineteenth-century Paris. As is always the case with Winocour (who also directed Disorder in 2015 and Proxima in 2019), the film is gripping and psychologically complex. It tells the story of an intricate power play between a patriarchal figure and his ward, mostly through the blocking of the camera and the physicality of the actors, rather than dialogue.
Mélanie Laurent tells a similar tale with her new film, The Mad Women’s Ball is set at the same time as Augustine, in the same asylum for hysterical women, and even features some of the same characters. This film’s Augustine-like character is called Louise (Lomane de Dietrich); the real woman both characters are based on was named Louise Augustine Gleizes. Charcot is played by Grégoire Bonnet. But they’re just supporting players in a story that’s really about another patient, the upper class Eugénie (Lou de Laâge), and a nurse at the asylum, Geneviève (Laurent).
This shift of focus to different characters offers a potentially compelling reason to watch The Mad Women’s Ball even though Augustine already exists and excels at tackling the same milieu. What was it like to not be Charcot’s star patient, but just another disposable woman in his care? What would the dynamic be like between a patient and a female nurse in this institution? How different would that be from the patriarchal power dynamic that existed between Charcot and Augustine? The Mad Women’s Ball starts to touch on these questions, but doesn’t quite go far enough to be interesting.
We meet Eugénie as a high society lady who is pointedly too modern for her time. She openly challenges her father at the dinner table, sneaks off to cafes to read books, and sharply criticises the practice of holding balls to show women off to potential suitors. She’s a nuisance to her father but beloved by her brother, Théophile (Benjamin Voisin), who also lives unconventionally — he’s secretly gay. Eugénie openly espouses feminist values that are very simple for a 2021 audience to align ourselves with, but would have been highly unusual for a woman in 1885. While de Laâge is a likeable screen presence, Eugénie doesn’t seem like a product of her time at all; she’s treated as highly exceptional for her time. The result is a film more about how a woman today would react to nineteenth century patriarchal practices than it is about what it was actually like to be a woman at that time. Why focus on the ‘exception’ when the truth is that most women suffered as part of the ‘rule’?
The film takes Eugénie’s exceptionalism to an extremely literal level when it’s not her outspokenness, but her supernatural ability to communicate with the dead that gets her sent to Charcot’s asylum. The inclusion of the supernatural almost gets at something interesting — how trying to convince someone to believe you as a woman is as difficult as getting them to believe you have fantastical powers. But what about the other women Eugénie is locked up with, many of whom are much poorer than Eugénie, and none of whom are supernatural?
A better film might use Eugénie’s powers to explore her privilege; they’re the reason she catches Geneviève’s eye, who promises to help Eugénie escape if she’ll communicate with Geneviève’s dead sister. Just as Eugénie has education and well-spokenness on her side, she also has her powers as a bartering tool. Unfortunately, The Mad Women’s Ball leaves Eugénie’s exceptionalism mostly unexplored.
Laurent’s focus on the women in the story is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that the primary villain is a woman, nurse Jeanne (Emmanuelle Bercot), which frustratingly diverts blame away from the men like Charcot who held most of the power in this institution. On the other hand, it’s an opportunity to tackle the underexplored question of why women might exploit other women in service of the patriarchy. The problem with The Mad Women’s Ball is it doesn’t provide very complex answers to that question. Geneviève seems at first like she might be antagonistic, but she softens very quickly into a heroine when she decides to help Eugénie. We’re supposed to root for her completely, even though she only started showing kindness to Eugénie when she knew she’d get something in return. On the flip side, Jeanne’s villainy is explained away quickly by a boring, tragic backstory, so that we never have to think to deeply about why women willingly enforce patriarchy.
The Mad Women’s Ball succeeds at showing the invasive and sometimes torturous ‘treatments’ inflicted on female hysteria patients, such as excruciating ice baths, solitary confinement, and painful vaginal examinations. It’s best moments depict the indignity of these punishments: a sudden wide shot of a naked Eugénie when she first enters the asylum makes you viscerally understand how exposed she feels with a roomful of eyes staring at her body. Laurent is better at showing how women were mistreated than actually getting inside their psychology. For that, she has to rely on her characters stating the subtext, like when Eugénie screams, “You’re driving her mad, doctor!” In conclusion: save yourself two hours and just watch Augustine.
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