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'Mad Women's Ball' review: Challenging, uncompromising drama

Mélanie Laurent in "The Mad Women's Ball."

Mélanie Laurent in "The Mad Women's Ball."   Credit: Amazon Studios/Jean-Louis Fernandez

MOVIE "The Mad Women's Ball"

WHERE Streaming on Amazon Prime.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The great French actress Mélanie Laurent directs, coscripts and co-stars in "The Mad Women's Ball," a drama set in a Paris asylum for women circa 1885.

The story centers on Eugéne Cléry (Lou de Laâge), committed there by her family because they don't believe her when she says she communicates with spirits.

It depicts the horrendous abuse forced upon the women imprisoned there perpetrated by the doctor in charge and his colleagues, as well as the burgeoning relationship that forms between Eugéne and head nurse Geneviève (Laurent).

The movie, an adaptation of the novel "Le bal des folles" by Victoria Mas, is streaming on Amazon Prime now, after debuting earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival.

MY SAY Set at the height of the Belle Époque, a period in France characterized by a spirit of optimistic innovation, "The Mad Women's Ball" presents an uncompromising look at the dark underbelly of the moment.

It's a difficult movie to watch because Laurent is so unrelenting in her depiction of this bastardization of the scientific method, where men wearing suits and smoking pipes treat women as props for callous experimentation in the name of medical advancement.

The viewer is forced to confront some wrenching scenes of abuse; the filmmaker does not shy away from a stark portrayal of the gradual dehumanization perpetrated on these women.

But the movie is an important one — a slow burn, captured in close-ups and bathed in chiaroscuro — that depicts a form of systemic abuse that has repeated itself in different forms throughout history.

Within the confines of this hospital, amid moments of genuine despair, Laurent presents an inspirational resistance: friendships form and a mutual support network grows between Eugéne and the other patients. Eugéne, who really can communicate with the dead, refuses to relent in the face of pressure to renounce her gift.

There's a smattering of light within the darkness in the extent to which Geneviève's own interactions with the protagonist spur an awakening to her complicity in this horror.

Laurent, best known in the United States for co-starring in films such as "Inglourious Basterds" and "Now You See Me," spares little expense in mounting this production. Even amid the streaming revolution, this is a movie that would undoubtedly work best on the big screen of a theater.

There's a genuinely beautiful and rich use of every inch of the frame, in shots composed to capture the full sense of a world hidden away from the prosperous and content Parisian facade of the moment.

"The Mad Women's Ball" does not necessarily offer anything illuminating or transforming in the way it presents the patriarchal system that facilitated such calculated horrors.

But it does force a confrontation with it, and never takes the easy way out.

BOTTOM LINE: Mélanie Laurent's drama is challenging and difficult to watch, but uncompromising in the way it presents a world of systemic abuse.

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