Twelve years ago, Mélanie Laurent was shooting Inglourious Basterds, playing a Jewish fugitive on the run from diabolical Christoph Waltz. At the end of each day’s shooting, Quentin Tarantino played music on set. After one particularly arduous day, David Bowie’s Cat People boomed out of the speakers. “We would dance. It was glorious,” she recalls.
On the film’s release, Laurent was touted as France’s next big thing. Peter Bradshaw wrote: “She could easily be the new French star to make the crossover into the Anglo-Saxon film world, like Catherine Deneuve or Juliette Binoche or Emmanuelle Béart or Marion Cotillard.”
It didn’t work out quite that way. Instead, audiences will be most familiar with her work from two bonkers Netflix offerings: Michael Bay’s breathtakingly daft thriller 6 Underground, and from French-language sci-fi hokum Oxygen (Laurent wakes trapped in an airtight cryogenic box).
But now she has directed her most recent – and most ambitious – feature film, The Mad Women’s Ball, a muted if poignant costume drama a world away from either Basterds or batty blockbusters. Pre-Covid, the film might have been seen in a few arthouses outside France. But now, it will be available on Amazon in 240 countries to an estimated potential audience of more than 200 million. “Thank God for platforms,” she says.
The Mad Women’s Ball could be described as a French feminist One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It is a historical drama about women misdiagnosed as hysterics and imprisoned in Paris’s Salpêtrière hospital in 1885. At the end of each day’s shoot, Laurent would cue up music for her cast and crew. “I stole that from Tarantino. I even had a playlist.” Such as? “Crazy,” she replies, giggling over Zoom from Paris. “I can’t remember who it’s by.” She hums a few bars. Gnarls Barkley, I tell her.
The film was made during lockdown; the allegory of a group of people driven mad by incarceration isn’t lost on Laurent. But, she says, the awful truth is that the women incarcerated at Salpêtrière were not mad but made so by their doctors, among them a young Sigmund Freud and the hospital’s chief neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot.
“When I did the research I was super-shocked to find that the women were not crazy and the diagnoses of hysteria were wrong. There were young women arriving at the hospital traumatised by a terrible rape and had some hysterical reaction to being treated like animals and experimented on. That’s what really killed me.”
Laurent’s film, adapted from Victoria Mas’s bestseller of the same name, is an eloquent cri de coeur against patriarchal medical control. Hysteria, the film suggests, was then a catch-all term that enabled male doctors to control women, many of whom had been previously abused.
No wonder that such women who claimed to see visions were marginalised by society or treated as mad by a patriarchal medical establishment, particularly by the likes of Charcot, the founder of modern neurology, whose public demonstrations of his hypnotherapy skills with female patients made him into a kind of showman and reduced vulnerable women into objects of spectacle.
“When you see paintings from the time, he’s God, surrounded by admiring men in tuxedos,” says Laurent. “ And then in the middle is a half-naked woman falling down on the floor and they all observe her. I don’t know if I can have respect for someone who didn’t have respect for all those women who gave their bodies for research in a way.”
The film’s heroine, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge), is subjected to grotesquely invasive gynaecological examinations and plunged repeatedly into ice baths in what looks like water torture, rather than what Charcot devised it to be – hydrotherapy to cure her of hysterical symptoms. “They were just like playing with dolls,” says Laurent.
That said, Laurent confides that the ice baths in the film were cellulose and the water warmed up, despite the insistence of her leading lady. “She wanted to go full method and really have an ice bath. I didn’t think it would add anything.”
Casting De Laâge in the role proves as inspired as Tarantino giving Laurent her Hollywood break 12 years ago. “She’s my muse.” Why? “I am moved by her beauty and moved because she really does not know how beautiful she is. She doesn’t know! She doesn’t know her power and how cinematic she is. She’s a beautiful human being also. I’m making movies and the more I’m seeing the world fall apart, the less tolerance I have for actors complaining. Lou does not complain.”
In the film, Laurent herself plays Geneviève, the head nurse who mutates from the Gallic equivalent of Nurse Ratched into something like Chief Bromden. “She’s so rigid and rational and so sure about herself. She’s in denial about serving doctors. She doesn’t even see that she’s humiliated every single day and she dedicated her life to that.”
Does the film have any resonances to the state of women today? “There’s a lot of work to do still. In India, a woman is raped every three seconds. In so many countries there are no women’s rights. In the US, those young gay kids who are dropped to those centres.” Laurent means the behavioural modification facilities, also known as tough love or wilderness camps for “troubled teens”, that were indicted last year in a documentary by Paris Hilton. Laurent sees such phenomena as showing that the world she depicts in her film is not just of historical interest. “It is so fucking weird how we’re regressing. Things feel dangerous right now. It’s weird to observe how we make revolutions, how we want to be different and how we become totally insane in other ways. We know how to get better and it is so strange to me that we regress and go back to something that was not bearable.”
Up next, a biopic about the pioneer of plastic surgery, Suzanne Noël. “Do you know her? Oh my God, you’re going to freak out! She’s amazing! She fixed the broken faces from the first world war and then she fixed the faces of Jewish prisoners who were beaten by the Gestapo. She’s brilliant. She invented how to remove the tattoos from the [survivors of Nazi concentration] camps. She died in total silence. How can it be that a woman like her is not famous?”
But Laurent insists that her latest project will not – unlike The Mad Women’s Ball – be an indictment of the patriarchy. “I cannot wait to put that on screen because there’s something joyful about a strong woman but one who is supported by men and men aren’t excluded. I’m tired of the fosse [chasm] we put between women and men sometimes and I want to show something else.” What? “We need you and you need us.”
• The Mad Women’s Ball is on Amazon Prime from 17 September
• This article was amended on 16 September 2021 to remove an incorrect reference to The Mad Women’s Ball being Laurent’s debut film as director.