I love a period drama that makes me feel transported to a different world. Unfortunately, the feeling that history keeps repeating itself creeps its way into one of my favorite film genres. IDK if there are too many people who feel great about the progress we’ve made (or lack thereof) when it comes to justice. Just in case you’re one of those people, I’d be willing to bet this week’s film could cure you of your optimism.
The Mad Women’s Ball
After being involuntarily committed to an asylum, a woman in 19th century France who sees ghosts plans her escape.
Eugénie is a smart, outspoken young woman from a well-to-do family in 19th century France. Totally the kind of person who does well flouting expectations in a period setting. Hmmmmmmm…
Unknown to most of the family, Eugénie is particularly unconventional as she communes with spirits. The only member of the family who cares for her is brother Théophile, hiding a secret of his own: he has a male lover. Luckily, no one else in the family has witnessed Eugénie’s ghostly visitations, which cause symptoms similar to a panic attack.
When Eugénie locates a piece of jewelry missing for years, her grandmother inwardly raises a suspicious brow. Eugénie explains that her long-dead grandfather told her where to find the item. Eyebrow raised to the ceiling. Shortly after, Eugénie goes for a carriage ride with her father and brother, with a final stop at the psychiatric hospital.
The institution where Eugénie is essentially imprisoned isn’t going to do much to radically alter your views on the treatment of mental illness in the 1800s. Neighbor Louise is friendly and a favorite patient for Dr. Charcot (a real historical figure) to parade about in order to demonstrate his genius. Eugénie makes no friends when she questions Dr. Charcot’s wisdom and resists the horrific treatments he prescribes: freezing baths, bloodletting, extended periods of isolation.
Things start to look up for Eugénie when she connects with aloof nurse Geneviève, delivering a message from beyond the grave. Increasingly convinced that Eugénie really does communicate with the dead, Geneviève agrees she will help the young woman escape in exchange for a conversation with her sister.
Just like a high school movie, any and everything important will happen at the big dance. This one is significantly less fun than even Carrie’s version of the prom, however.
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
Oooof, this one did not come to play. Most of the characters are horribly tortured in the name of science, and there’s practically no hope for any of them. Meanwhile, the men in the film physically and sexually abuse their patients as they congratulate themselves on what a great job they’re doing. It’s really tough to watch as things aren’t going to get better, and the despair seems to echo well into the present.
In addition to being bleak AF, the film makes it difficult to root for anyone. Eugénie is pretty fucking quick to forget her friends, including Louise, who is literally being assaulted as Eugénie escapes. I recognize there’s a limit to what she can do to help the other women institutionalized, but it’s disappointing just the same that Eugénie doesn’t try. Also true for Geneviève, who doesn’t try to help anyone except Eugénie. What’s more is their relationship is rather transactional, as Geneviève only agrees to help in order to reconnect with her deceased sister.
The message was definitely given much more thought than the plot, as there are a lot of story threads that feel unconnected and not strictly relevant. There are quite a few more scenes depicting Eugénie and Geneviève’s home lives than are needed, honestly. For a film that’s called The Mad Women’s Ball, there’s very little focus on the event itself. And I am highly dissatisfied with the amount of ghost content in this film; i.e., very little.
I will say that, as with almost any period drama, I cannot help but appreciate the costumes and scenery (I mean, during non-asylum scenes anyway). I do find the performances believable too. But mostly this is très bleak.