Review: Le ball des folles (2021)

Le ball des folles (2021)

Directed by: Melanie Laurent | 122 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Lou de Laâge, Mélanie Laurent, Emmanuelle Bercot, Benjamin Voisin, Cédric Kahn, Lomane de Dietrich, Christophe Montenez, Coralie Russier, Alice Barnole, Lauréna Thellier, Martine Schambacher, Martine Chevallier, André Marcon

‘Le bal des folles’ (or in English: ‘The Mad Women’s Ball’) is a film adaptation of the book of the same name by Victoria Mas. The film is directed by Mélanie Laurent (known to the general public for her international breakthrough in Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’) and is set in Paris in the late nineteenth century. ‘Le bal des folles’ is an ambitious drama that at times almost feels like a psychological thriller, including supernatural elements. The film wants to tell a lot in just two hours of playing time. Although she does not always succeed in this, Laurent puts down a strong film all in all.

In the opening scene we follow a woman, whom we initially only see on her back. The camera is close to her as she attends a major public event (this turns out to be Victor Hugo’s funeral). Then she is on her way home, where she takes a seat at the dining table. Too late. After her father’s disapproving words, we see her face for the first time: Eugénie. She is a young, independent woman who does not fit into the picture of what is expected of her. When she also claims to be able to communicate with the dead, her father takes her to the Salpêtrière hospital. There she is admitted to the ward with women who also suffer from hysteria, from depression or who are a burden on society in some other way. This department is headed by Geneviève (played by Mélanie Laurent herself), the strict chief nurse and assistant to physician Jean-Martin Charcot (the man actually existed and is seen as one of the founding armies of psychiatry).

Eugénie’s life in Salpêtrière is hard. As an intelligent woman, she knows she has been illegally admitted, but is punished when she does not comply with the rules of the institution. Her fellow patients also suffer more than they receive the medical care they need. The great thing about ‘Le bal des folles’ is that, even though Eugénie is the main character, all the women in the department are portrayed as fully-fledged. They are portrayed with respect and dignity, making them more than characters to fill the main character’s narrative. This adds to the horrendous whole that unfolds within the walls of the hospital, with the question of whether the treatments are not precisely the cause of their mental illness is growing stronger by the minute. This is in stark contrast to the beautiful cinematography: the camera stays close to the characters, who are sometimes lit as if they were in a painting. In combination with the existing sound design, this makes their discomfort, injustice and despair tangible. Because who are really the ones here who don’t have it all figured out?

The film comes to a climax during Het Bal: one evening a year where patients are allowed to dress up and are paraded around in front of family members, wealthy interested parties and friends of the hospital. This unsavory feast sums up everything that is going wrong within this institution, making it almost a relief that the end of the film is in sight. Apart from a number of over-the-top moments, ‘Le bal des folles’ is strongly acted and manages to make the viewer feel involved in all the horrors of the zeitgeist. There’s a lot going on and the themes are big, but if you manage to keep your attention, the film provides a fascinating look at the treatment of women, who were excluded from society at the end of the nineteenth century.

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