What if you could converse with spirits, but nobody believed you? And then they committed you to a psychiatric ward?
Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge) faces such a fate in “The Mad Women’s Ball,” streaming Sept. 17 on Amazon Prime. A young woman in late 1800s France, Eugénie craves independence and has a penchant for speaking her mind – and yes, she claims to communicate with spirits.
Audiences witness Eugénie’s sudden, sporadic spasms as she engages with the spirit world but can’t see the spirits themselves. An intentional choice for the the French-language film, which debuted Sunday during the Toronto Film Festival.
“If you show the ghost, then it’s a ghost movie,” says director, writer and star Mélanie Laurent says over Zoom from a small island in France. “When you don’t see them, it’s a movie about belief. And it’s not the same.”
Eugénie’s family commits her to a women’s neurological clinic, where she and fellow patients undergo harsh, abusive treatment.
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Laurent plays a clinic nurse, Geneviève, whose own own role in the hospital – one where she always plays second fiddle tomale doctors – is its own kind of prison.
“It’s so interesting for Geneviève’s arc, to be so into medicine, to be so into accepting that humiliation day by day, and feeling like she’s so important in the hospital when she’s not,” Laurent says.
Though the film takes place far in the past, the concept of underestimating and not believing in women remains painfully prevalent in 2021. Our understanding of health care, of course, has radically improved since then.
While Laurent acknowledges it’s tough to juggle acting and directing at the same time, it has its benefits. “Sometimes you don’t have to direct (your fellow actors),” she says. “You just play with them. And then inside the acting, you can lead them.”
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As the title suggests, the “mad” characters in the movie are all women, while men who deviate from societal norms escape excommunication. French author Victor Hugo can try to communicate with spirits, but Eugénie can’t. Eugénie witnesses an intimate, private moment between her brother Théophile (Benjamin Voisin) and another man. But while Eugénie keeps her brother’s secret – and reserves judgment, is even privately happy for him – he fails to keep hers.
“She doesn’t judge anyone,” Laurent says. “And I love that idea of, he has his secret, she has her secret, but he’s going to betray her because he’s scared about who she is when she’s not scared about who he is. That complexity was very interesting for me.”
Laurent asked herself the question many times: Would she have believed Eugénie? She’s not sure. But Geneviève was desperate enough for an answer.
in ghosts, in spirits, in anything, but I like the idea of (giving the audience) space for choosing which belief they have,” Laurent says.
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