The journey of Victoria Mas’s novel The Mad Women’s Ball to the big screen was a remarkably fast one, with barely five months passing between its publication and Melanie Laurent signing on to direct and star in the adaptation, filming that same year, and then reaching our screens a mere 10 months after that. It’s not hard to see why – here is an inherently cinematic story of ghosts, prison breaks, and female companionship, an eminently entertaining melodrama wrapped up in a costume drama sheen.
Laurent takes the role of Genevieve, the head nurse at a women’s insane asylum at the tail end of the 19th Century, but our heroine here is actually Eugenie Clery (Lou de Laage), a young woman from a wealthy family shipped off to the asylum by her father after claiming she can commune with spirits. As it turns out, she actually can, and though this mystical gift has essentially jailed her, it also grants her the power to almost immediately make plans to break out.
Both de Laage and Laurent give committed, energetic performances, livening up some otherwise rather cliched scenes of asylum life – all invasive medical procedures, ice baths, and chaotic communal areas. This being the turn of the century, the ‘medicine’ practiced at the asylum is anything but helpful, the men in charge (with the aid of some of the more sadistic nurses) rendering their charges ever more weak and sickly with their quack science while outright abusing some of them.
It’s effectively infuriating stuff, even if the ghostly visitations do undercut the seriousness a bit, and a stark reminder of just how barbaric the ‘civilised’ world and its medical establishments were, and continue to be, towards women and the disabled. There’s even a Nurse Ratched-esque villain in the form of Jeanne (Emmanuelle Bercot, going a bit too broadly evil), the nurse in charge of the isolation cells who seems to harbour a burning hatred for the mentally ill.
The ball of the title is an annual event at the asylum where the women are allowed to dress up in fancy clothes and mingle with the grotesque men of the local high society, who come to laugh and molest, and it’s here where Eugenie spots a potential way to escape. This whole sequence is the most ambitious, both visually and in terms of sheer moving parts, and Laurent keeps her plates spinning with skill, only dragging slightly at the very end. The Mad Women’s Ball might not have much originality to offer, but it has plenty of fun with its tropes, all building towards a cathartic final goodbye.