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‘The Mad Women’s Ball’ director Mélanie Laurent on the thrill of shooting in film for the first time

Mélanie Laurent attends the red carpet of the movie ‘The Last Duel’ during the 78th Venice International Film Festival on September 10, 2021 in Venice, Italy.   | Photo Credit: VITTORIO ZUNINO CELOTTO / Getty Images

Directing oneself sounds like an out-of-body experience but actor-filmmaker-musician Mélanie Laurent revelled in it. Despite a busy virtual press tour for her French-language film The Mad Women’s Ball (Le Bal Des Folles), she looks at ease as she talks about the themes of the book-to-screen adaptation.

Laurent laughs as she says that directing a movie in which she also stars is less stressful and she feels in command of the set too. “In France, a lot of directors don’t want to work with me because I’m a director. Meanwhile, foreign directors find that to be a cool thing.”

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Set in the 1880s, The Mad Women’s Ball follows Eugénie Cléry (Lou de Laâge), an upper-class woman forced by her family into Pitié-Salpêtrière, a neurological clinic in Paris. Why? Because Eugénie confided in her grandmother that she sees spirits. The institution, a seemingly cold and run-down place, is supervised by head nurse Geneviève (Laurent) who takes an interest in Eugénie. Amid the darkness, the women in the clinic look forward to the annual ball for which they get to dress up and dance.

A still from ‘Le Bal Des Folles’ (Mad Women’s Ball) with Mélanie Laurent and Lou de Laâge.

A still from ‘Le Bal Des Folles’ (Mad Women’s Ball) with Mélanie Laurent and Lou de Laâge.   | Photo Credit: Amazon Studios

To say The Mad Women’s Ball is just a psychodrama is an understatement; the Prix Stanislas and Prix Renaudot des Lycéens-winning novel by Victoria Mas tells of the real horrors women went through in the name of modern psychiatry during the 1880s, a time clouded by rising tensions between religion and science. Laurent, who loves working with actresses, is often drawn to women-powered projects.

The film has been generating a lot of buzz given its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival this week, and its scheduled release on Amazon Prime Video on September 17.

Darkness meets light

Such a film holds potential for strong metaphorical possibilities. Between Eugénie and the other women at Pitié-Salpêtrière, there is a clear class clash disparity, but Laurent made sure this did not overshadow the central narrative. “The truth is that those very rich women — when they were supposed to be sick — would have a special treatment, and Dr Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) made a lot of money treating the wealthy, as well as people from the streets and the nearby prison. I wanted one case to make the movie happen though and the idea of a rich girl in the hospital was enough to make it happen for me. It’s interesting because I had so much space in the mise-en-scène to work in these two worlds.”

A still from ‘Le Bal Des Folles’ (Mad Women’s Ball) with Mélanie Laurent

A still from ‘Le Bal Des Folles’ (Mad Women’s Ball) with Mélanie Laurent   | Photo Credit: Amazon Studios

Laurent shares an example, “The opening scene is a funeral with tons of people and then Eugénie enters a creepy flat where people only judge her. The family has very big issues when it comes to communication and love — it all feels like a very long funeral. So when she comes to the hospital, everything is turned upside down.”

Though the institute is a hotbed for exploitation, abuse and gaslighting of the residents, Laurent’s direction attempts a sensitive portrait of these marginalised women. She elaborates, “We were also keen on audiences feeling the sound and atmosphere within the clinic that causes Eugénie’s loss of comfort. So when she is dropped into this crazy world where no one is actually crazy, she comes to have many warm relationships with people around her, who accept her as she is and don’t judge her.”

With more than 25 industry years under her belt, Laurent is one of French cinema’s most respected contemporary filmmakers and actors, often seen on the international festival circuits. Though the 38-year-old has made a few forays into Hollywood, she seems to enjoy the thriving grounds of European film. Many would clock her as the dynamic Shoshana / Emmanuelle from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) turning down the advances of Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) and avenging her murdered family by taking on SS-Standartenführer ‘The Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Laurent also starred alongside Ryan Reynolds in in Michael Bay’s 6 Underground (2019) as CIA spook Two / Camille.

A still from Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ featuring Shosanna Dreyfus / Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent)

A still from Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ featuring Shosanna Dreyfus / Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent)   | Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Her next directorial role is the 2022 drama film The Nightingale, an adaptation of a novel by Kristin Hannah, starring sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning.

Laurent does not shy away from experimentation and she saw plenty of it with The Mad Women’s Ball’s cinematography led by Nicolas Karakatsanis. The shots had to align with the story and shifting tones through the film and Laurent explains, “I wanted to work on still shots and working along some tracks. The first part of the film has a lot of machinery and then we let go of it all when Eugénie let go too. From then, we took a steady camera and took stances with all my actresses.”

New filming vistas

The Mad Women’s Ball was a landmark in Laurent’s directorial career because, after working with the same director of photography for many years, she switched to a new collaborator: Nicolas Karakatsanis of Cruella, The Loft and I, Tonya fame. “It was hard for me because I made every single film of mine with the same DoP,” she shares with a pause, “Nicolas is a big DoP who made a lot of Hollywood films. When he talked about Le Bal Des Folles, I was amazed at how he felt everything and just got it.”

A still from ‘Le Bal Des Folles’ (Mad Women’s Ball) with Mélanie Laurent and Lou de Laâge

A still from ‘Le Bal Des Folles’ (Mad Women’s Ball) with Mélanie Laurent and Lou de Laâge   | Photo Credit: Amazon Studios

Karakatsanis proposed a new challenge to Laurent: to shoot the whole movie in film. “I never did that before. And, oh my God, that was the best idea (laughs) and, being a painter, he literally painted all those shots,” she describes, “Shooting in film is very special; you work in front of and behind the camera and when you go to the monitor you don’t see anything (exhales sharply) so I had to run into the eye of the camera to check everything and sometimes I sat at the foot of the camera, while wearing my costume, to watch my actors. Having those big and noisy cameras along with the stress of not wasting too much film is very interesting. He brought so much cinema into my world and it was magical. He had my back and I had a lot of space with him.”

A mother of two, Laurent found that the eerie atmosphere created by The Mad Women’s Ball’s dark storyline was alleviated by her cheerful brood whom she often brought to set. “It works out great; I don’t have to choose between seeing my kids and making a very intense movie. I wish I could do that more as an actor working on a movie but it’s not always seen as a good thing,” she remarks.

She fondly recalls having her baby daughter in her lap while she was in costume and directing her cast. “She was observing life and people, and she was very calm. I loved it because it reminded us that we were only making movies.”

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 1:22:18 PM |

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