The Mad Women’s Ball Review – Toronto International Film Festival

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In the strange spirituality of The ball of mad women, a ruthless medical system and the systemic abuses women have historically suffered at the hands of men in power come together in a frightening dance. In her film, screenwriter-director-actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds and To breathe) takes a cold look at how the fields of medicine and psychiatry have used women as the scapegoats and laboratory rats of progress, without the essential foundation of care and understanding.

The ball of mad women focuses on free-spirited Eugenie. Her daring and independent spirit already made her an abnormality in 19th century France, but it was her visions of the specters and her communication with the dead that brought her to a neurological institution. In the institution, Eugenie meets women of all ages, some seeking help for a myriad of conditions and others have been taken there to be forgotten. What awaits them all is a system of abuse, condescension and dehumanization.

True to the form of any period drama, this film is an elegantly put together film that uses the setting for a glorious effect. Lou de Laage and Mélanie Laurent are positively magnetic and bring as much warmth as calculation to their respective roles. The result is an unlikely friendship that reads well on screen and sells the balance of spirituality and science that The ball of mad women based on.

This story of ugly truths about institutional abuse is a sweeter story of what it means to be truly healed. Healing is something that comes from connection and kindness and a desire to help others in any way you can. The poetic irony of this film is that each of the “Mad Women” turns out to be a greater healer than any of the doctors overseeing their treatment. These women tell stories, protect each other, and give all the gifts they have to support their sisters. It has such an impact and it’s a message that strikes a contemporary chord.

The ball of mad women possesses several commendable attributes that make it a perfectly competent drama. The film is distinctly feminist, even going so far as to come close to “the power of girls”. It’s not necessarily a mark against the film, but a thought to be turned around when looking at the film holistically. The film is good… but it is very superficial. The film is barely beginning to hover over the surface of its core issues and offers abuse as a punctuation to the winding plot. The runtime doesn’t feel fully justified because, despite its large scale, it doesn’t say much at all.

It is difficult to take a firm stand on The ball of mad women. The depictions of female connection and shared experience are beautifully done and make the exercise meaningful. However, the film does not boldly step into the darker shadows of its subject matter. The end product is a large actor piece that’s a bit hollow in the center.

The ball of mad women screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

The ball of mad women

6/10

TL; DR

It is difficult to take a firm position on The ball of mad women. The depictions of female connection and shared experience are beautifully done and make the exercise meaningful. However, the film does not boldly step into the darker shadows of its subject matter. The end product is a large actor piece that’s a bit hollow in the center.


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Darcy J. Skinner

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