To be discovered on Amazon Prime Video, “Le Bal des folles” by Mélanie Laurent adapts the eponymous bestseller by Victoria Mas. The two works revive 19th century France, but did the Salpêtrière ball really take place?
In Le Bal des folles, actress and director Mélanie Laurent retraces the nightmare of these women forced into the psychiatric ward of Pitié Salpêtrière in the 19th century. Adapted from the eponymous novel by Victoria Mas, the film focuses more particularly on the fate of Eugenie (Lou de Laage), from a bourgeois background, who has the gift of communicating with spirits. For his family, all that was needed was to lock him up within the walls of this hospital known for the work of its head of department, Professor Jean-Martin Charcot.
The title of the film refers to one of the key scenes in the plot. Building on his popularity, the famous doctor is organizing an event, called “le bal des folles ” by the press, to attract curious crowds. Journalists, medical students, special guests and people of high society make the trip to observe, examine and make fun of these residents treated like real beasts of feast.
In the 1880s, this event did take place. It was organized at the end of February, on the occasion of the Mardi Gras festival. For Jean-Martin Charcot, this initiative was a chance to offer his patients a series of activities, such as preparations. All dressed in disguises, they danced in front of the dumbfounded eyes of visitors who expected an abnormal reaction or an inappropriate gesture on their part.
Professor Charcot, who refused to be present during these evenings, used to invite strangers during his numerous experiments. Thus, he practiced hypnosis or electrical stimulation in public. These assumed exhibitions were an opportunity for him to extend the prestigious reputation of his establishment.
Interviewed by AlloCine, Mélanie Laurent specifies that there is very little reliable information on the ball, even if press articles were published at the time. “Many sources were contradictory, she explains. One article said that there were so many people, that it was crazy, but another could say that there were only three people. For the movie, we went in between.”
In order to carry out her research, the filmmaker had access to certain archives from the hospital, but also to the work of a student who offered her her thesis comprising more than 400 pages on the Pitié Salpêtrière and the famous ball. With The Bal des folles, Mélanie Laurent pays tribute to these women who were once ostracized from society.