Review by Sean Boelman
Mélanie Laurent has a very impressive filmography as an actress, but her track record behind the camera is less consistent. Her newest directorial effort, The Mad Women’s Ball, shows a lot of potential, but is far too dull and soft with its themes to be particularly memorable, much less have an impact.
Based on a novel by Victoria Mas, the film tells the story of a woman who is wrongly institutionalized as she partners up with one of the nurses to help her escape. On paper, it has what it takes to be an inspiring and political tale, but instead, what we get is a toothless period piece that comes across more as a vanity project than anything else.
The pacing of the film is definitely an issue. It takes quite a while for the protagonist to even reach the mental hospital, and while this is meant to provide characterization and context for the themes, this is later reinforced by exposition in later acts. There definitely could have been some time shaved off of the runtime, especially in the first act.
There is something to be said in the film about how society in the 19th century took advantage of women and threw them to the curb when they did anything that ran counter to the patriarchal ideals, but the film is too weak-handed when it comes to this. Perhaps in a failed attempt at subtlety, the film doesn’t resonate in this regard.
The character arcs in the film are well-developed, if entirely conventional and by-the-book. The protagonist’s journey is entirely predictable and contains no surprises. Her savior’s storyline is even more frustrating, as it is a very basic and ham-fisted message about empathy. Although we sympathize with the characters for their plight, there needed to be more depth to make it compelling.
Neither of the lead performances here are bad. Lou de Lâage’s performance isn’t especially nuanced, as she is clearly struggling to live up to the image of other actors who have done similar roles in the past. And Laurent clearly cast herself in the prominent supporting role hoping that it would be favorable to her, although it does not pay off.
From a technical standpoint, the film is fine, if nothing exceptional. The production design in regards to the periodization is mostly very average, doing a good enough job of recreating the period but never feeling impressively gorgeous. And as for the shooting style, it’s very bland, which doesn’t help with the boring script.
The Mad Women’s Ball has all of the elements in place to be something intriguing, but it never delivers. Ultimately, viewers will have seen plenty of movies like this before that do the same thing better, and they will soon forget this one.
The Mad Women’s Ball is screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 9-18.