Candid Cinema

TIFF ’21: ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Mélanie Laurent’s The Mad Women’s Ball is a harrowing tale of institutional abuse and misogyny in 19th-century France. Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge) is a young woman with a free spirit, an independent mind, and a quick tongue — qualities her father will not tolerate. Eugénie also has spectral encounters that leave her staring into space and gasping for breath. She is visited by the spirits of the dead. Alarmed by her visions, Eugénie’s family admits her to a neurological clinic in Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière overseen by Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet). Watching Eugénie lose her voice and her freedom by the hands of men who simply didn’t understand her was frustrating to sit through.

In this particular case, women who are seen as outcasts, do not get the love and care they deserve. Instead of understanding women and their trauma, or their personal struggles, they are automatically cast to the side as if they are broken. What Laurent taps into in this film is the ability to understand women and how various forms of trauma, or conforming to societal norms, can affect them mentally. Laurent takes the audience on a brutal journey through the institutional abuse of women when they need help the most. Even though it takes place in the 19th century, those themes are prevalent today.

What these women endure physically parallels the mental struggle of dealing with abandonment, physical trauma and emotional abuse. There are different characters in this film that show the paths women must choose and the repercussions of their choices. Eugénie is very outspoken and therefore, she is isolated, silenced, and terrorized mentally. Whereas other characters are probed and observed by men in the institution. Eventually turning their mental trauma into physical ailments. Women are placed under a microscope in this film and its unsettling to watch at times but really necessary to understand the complexities of trauma.

The Mad Women’s Ball is bold in its visual storytelling, as it casts these women as medical subjects rather than patients needing assistance. It is heartbreaking to watch these women suffer through their own trauma, as men observe them. There is this hatred that boils under the surface and it is finally released at the end of this film. Laurent made this for women everywhere who have felt insignificant because of condescending men who have affected them in any way. It’s a powerful feat that will resonate with audiences who have experienced any form of pain at the hands of internalized misogyny, institutional abuse, and men in general.

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