Melanie Laurent, one of France’s most acclaimed actors-turned-filmmakers, has been having a banner 2021, headlining Alexandre Aja’s hit Netflix movie “Oxygene,” sitting on Spike Lee’s Cannes jury, and world premiering her sixth directorial effort “The Mad Women’s Ball” at Toronto. The ambitious period movie marks Amazon’s first French movie original.
Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds,””Beginners”) shot the film when her long-gestated Sony project “The Nightingale” with Elle Fanning and Dakota Fanning saw its production halted due to the pandemic.
Based on Victoria Mas’ award-winning novel “Le Bal des folles,” “The Mad Women’s Ball” takes place at the end of the 19th century in Paris, at a time when women deemed too rebellious or difficult were frequently labeled as insane and institutionalized. The action unfolds at the Salpêtrière hospital where such women, diagnosed with different kinds of nervous system disorders, were confined and put under the supervision of neurologists such as Jean-Martin Charcot. Each year, a prestigious ball was organized with the patients and attracted the Parisian elite; it was a place to see and be seen.
Lou de Laâge, who starred in Laurent’s sophomore outing “Breathe,” plays Eugénie, a young, radiant and passionate woman who discovers at a young age that she has the special power to hear the dead. After her family discovers her secret, she is taken to the hospital, where she bonds with a nurse, Geneviève (Laurent). Their encounter will change both their futures as they prepare for Charcot’s ball. Alain Goldman and Axelle Boucaï at Legende Films (“La vie en rose”) produced the film.
Laurent says that although the idea of adapting Mas’ novel came from her producer (Goldman), she had a desire to direct a period film about “witches in the Middle-Age, a film that could be described as ‘eco-feminist.'”
“Through history, women who have tried to make society progress were often not allowed to and they didn’t have access to knowledge like men, so they found other ways to learn things on their own. Women could have made more discoveries in sciences, they could have done so many things, but they were silenced,” says Laurent, adding that she was compelled by the cinematic appeal and complexity of Mas’ book.
“After reading ‘Le Bal des folles,’ I was horrified as I realized women have been oppressed at different periods, either the clergy, or the field of medicine, or our male-dominated society,” says Laurent.
“The world is changing fast these days, and it’s not headed in the right direction: We’ve left behind women in Afghanistan where they risk being raped every four seconds and everywhere in the world there are still women who are beaten to death,” says the director.
Although the film is set in the 19th century, Laurent says it’s “very modern to talk about women who are silenced and called crazy.” “I’m under the impression that the more power women have today and the more they are called crazy or hysterical,” she says.
The latest wave of feminism has also led to a surge of hostility towards outspoken women, says Laurent, who admits she’s often been called crazy herself for taking on too much.
“I’ve often been told I was crazy, for a long time, because I try to do a lot of different things. It’s just the idea of seeing me get out of my little box of actress and try to accomplish other things. It’s true that a woman who dares to venture into too many projects always raises suspicion, but we’re capable of so much!” says Laurent, adding that she’s never seen a male filmmaker bring his kids on set for more than five minutes whereas their female counterparts do it and can juggle.
She says her baby daughter was on the set of “The Mad Women’s Ball” every day, which made her feel “fulfilled” and gave her the “mental strength” she needed on the shoot.
Laurent also praises de Laâge for her singularity and her performance in “a role that was made for her.” “She’s an actor with such a huge potential and she’s often cast by directors, often male ones, as the pretty woman, but she can do so much more. She has a star demeanor with a mind-blowing beauty and she also has this intelligent look in her eyes and a vulnerability while having this big voice; so we can’t put her in any box,” says Laurent, adding that de Laâge brings modernity and boldness to the character of Eugénie.
“The Mad Women’s Ball” is the first film that Laurent directs for a streaming service. Amazon Prime Video boarded the project after Gaumont had been involved. The French studio was initially set to co-produce and distribute the film in France, but the pandemic hit and the project needed a deep-pocketed partner to get greenlit.
“We were ready to make this film for theaters and were preparing the film with Gaumont and TV channels, but then the second wave began, and it became complicated and very stressful for financiers; we were starting to feel that there would be a clutter of releases and we feared we couldn’t find a good slot to release the film in theaters,” says Laurent.
The helmer says she was given complete creative freedom by Amazon Prime Video and its head of originals, Thomas Dubois.”[Dubois] never came on set or in the editing room; he just told me to be as radical as I wanted, so I felt more free than on any other film,” says Laurent.
“I would have been unhappy to see the film come out in theaters and pulled away from screens after a week or two; whereas with Amazon, it’s rolling out in 240 countries, on the same day and at the same time,” Laurent says. “I think on this subject, on this film, that’s what I wanted.”