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Movie Review: 'The Mad Women's Ball'

I remember years ago what an “oh my god” moment it was for me when I learned about the origin of the word “hysteria.” At the time, I had just understood being hysterical to mean having an out-of-control reaction to something, or, more often, an overreaction. Realizing the sex-based root of the word, and that it actually used to be an official psychological diagnosis of women, was horrifying.

The reality behind all this is, of course, even more horrifying than my ignorance, and it’s the basis for the French film The Mad Women’s Ball. The movie picks up in late-19th-century Paris, and involves a mental hospital for women, some of whom need genuine help, most of whom are simply institutionalized for being women. And then there’s Eugénie, who’s committed early in the film because she claims she can talk to spirits, which is very likely true. It’s certainly true that most of the women in the hospital shouldn’t be there, and that some of them have even been driven into madness by the conditions around them. Eugénie meets the stern head nurse, who’s won over when Eugénie relates messages from the nurse’s dead sister.

The movie’s photography is beautiful, though it may be too beautiful—many times the film is obviously referencing famous paintings, and while any particular frame is gorgeous, this also took me out of the story. It was clear they were showing off. I realize complaining that something looks too good is maybe a bit much.

More importantly, I’m just not sure we needed the supernatural angle. The women’s stories are enough—one we meet is in the hospital simply because a relative tried to rape her, and it was easier for her family to commit her than to deal with the fallout. And she’s not alone. Admittedly, a woman who talks to ghosts is a hook that’s probably more easily sold, so maybe we need that kind of vehicle to tell this story at all. And that, in itself, is a shame—but also, it does mostly work. The Mad Women’s Ball is intriguing, certainly watchable, and at least acknowledges yet another way we’ve punished women just for being women.

The Mad Women’s Ball is on Amazon Prime

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.