(2020) Drama (Amazon) Mélanie Laurent, Lou de Laáge, Emanuelle Bercot, Benjamin Voisin, Cédric Kahn, Lomane de Dietrich, Christophe Montenez, Coralie Russier, Alice Barnole, Lauréna Thellier, Martine Schambacher, Martine Chevallier, André Marcon, Valérie Stroh, Grégoire Bonnet, Pierre-Antoine Deborde, Morgan Perez, Pierre Renverseau, Laura Balasuriya. Directed by Mélanie Laurent
With the draconian abortion law enacted by Texas (and eyed eagerly by other Red States), the assault on the bodily autonomy of women continues unabated by a vicious patriarchy intent on turning women into Stepford Wives, barefoot and pregnant, mindless and opinion-free whose only role is to squeeze out more white males to perpetuate the patriarchy. These are the headlines of the 21st century.
They aren’t anything new. In the 19th century, women were expected to conform to societal norms and France was no different than anywhere else. Women who were “difficult” (read as “having opinions of their own”) who longed to enjoy the same rights as men were often diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. In Paris, they’d be sent to the notorious Salpêriére asylum where they were subjected to abominable “treatments” that were little more than legalized torture.
Young Eugénie (de Laáge) is the daughter of a wealthy, controlling man (Kahn) who is at his wit’s end with his daughter who often says and does things that scandalize the family. She wants nothing more than to hang out in Bohemian Montmartre, smoking cigarettes and reading poetry – what the chic set does. She keeps her brother Theophile’s (Voisin) homosexuality a secret in return to being smuggled to the cafes she so loves.
But Eugénie has a bit of a problem; she is able to communicate with the dead. Contact with them puts her into a convulsive-like state, although she is learning to master the situation. However, it only adds to her already tenuous reputation and when her father finds out about it, he commits her to Salpêriére. There, she will be under the treatment of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Bonnet) whose methods are brutal, to say the least; he forces women to sit in ice baths for hours, locks them up in solitary confinement in darkness, conducts examinations with medieval-looking instruments.
Eugénie however manages to befriend head nurse Geneviéve (Laurent) particularly after telling her that her deceased sister is aware of the hundreds of letters that the nurse has written her after her death. Despite falling afoul of nurse Jeanne (Bercot), Eugénie is able to against the odds maintain her spirit, but how long can it survive in a place like this? The upcoming ball in which the madwomen of the asylum are permitted to socialize with the citizens of Paris may provide her that opportunity.
This is the sixth film Laurent has directed in the last ten years (in addition to a busy acting schedule), and her confidence and assuredness is obvious. As an actress herself, she is able to coax some amazing performances from her charges and de Laáge, who previously worked with Laurent in Breathe, is the beneficiary. Her large doe-like eyes glisten with excitement and intelligence, as she is eager to experience all the wonders of life in 1880s Paris for herself. Watching that fire slowly being leeched out of her eyes is a master class in cinematic performance.
But de Laáge isn’t alone as the cast is uniformly strong in their performances. This is Laurent’s first period piece as a director, but you’d never know it; she captures the misogyny and brutality of the era quite well. And despite the fact that the action takes place nearly 140 years ago, its relevance to our own era seems quite clear.
The movie does move at it’s own pace which some American audiences will find slow; it is also not a short, easy viewing. It will require some attention from the viewer and that’s not always easy to supply when watching at home where the distractions are often overwhelming when watching movies in your bedroom or living room.
There are definitely some scenes that are hard to watch, but as The Wrap’s Marya Gates put it, this is a love letter to the power of women. The resilience of Eugénie in the face of hardship, abandoned by those who should have loved and protected her, is inspiring. It reminds me of what some of the activists in the Pro-Choice movement in Texas are accomplishing, fighting the ongoing battle against aging white men who do not have their best interests at heart.
REASONS TO SEE: Strong acting performances all around. A look at 19th century feminism and misogyny and relates it to modern times.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced and a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and sexuality, some brief profanity, violence and a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Victoria Mas, a 34-year-old Sorbonne graduate who has lived in the United States for the past eight years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hysteria
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10