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Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was French actress Melanie Laurent’s breakout role in Hollywood, and she followed that up with starring roles in Now You See Me and 6 Underground.
But Laurent also has thrived as a film director, and she’s bringing her latest work, The Mad Women’s Ball, in which she also stars in Amazon’s first original French feature, to the Toronto International Film Festival for a world premiere.
The film, set in 19th century Paris, tells the story of a young woman named Eugenie, played by Lou de Laâge, who is hospitalized against her will because she claims to be able to talk to ghosts. When Eugenie meets Geneviève (Laurent), a nurse in the neurological clinic at the La Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, a bond develops between them thanks to Geneviève’s desire to communicate with her dead sister. The lives of the women are changed forever when they attend the famous Bal des Folles, a society ball held at the clinic every year.
Ahead of The Mad Women’s Ball launching in Toronto, Laurent talked to THR about her preference for book-to-screen adaptations and working with women on set and not attending her world premiere in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mad Women’s Ball is based on Victoria Mas’ novel. What attracted you to adapting the novel?
It started two years and I wanted to make a movie about women and something feminist. And I wanted to do a period movie and I had in mind a story about witches and women who couldn’t do anything and were seen as monsters and witches because they knew something. The producer came to me with the book and I thought that’s exactly what I’ve been looking for — a story about someone who’s seeing ghosts and spirits, which would be acceptable today, but not two centuries ago, and especially for women.
Your movie follows Eugenie, a bourgeois woman who believes in spirits and is unjustly institutionalized, and Geneviève, a nurse who works at the hospital, obeys science and doctors and finds herself ultimately confined in the same hospital. Tell us about the clash and collaboration of these two women in the film.
I loved the idea of having a woman who believes in science and a woman who is gifted and can talk to spirits in a hospital and then to be able to talk about who can believe in what, and what is freedom at the end.
Your movie hinges on the disturbing, yet captivating performance of Lou De Laâge. You worked with her in Breathe (2014), a coming of age tale based on another novel. Was Lou De Laage always going to star in Mad Women’s Ball?
Lou is a dream to work with. I loved her as a friend and of course as a director to see how she’s gained so much maturity, she’s accessing emotions so much easier. In Breathe, the first movie we made together, she was the mean one, and now she’s the beautiful angel who’s arriving and taking care of people in a very soft way. It’s amazing as a director to meet someone who can be your muse and to see how she can be different in so many different characters.
You play Genevieve in the film. Was that a challenging role?
It’s a complex and mysterious character. She’s a very sad and lonely woman, who’s coming from a hard past. We don’t know much about her, except her father is a doctor and that she lost her sister. You don’t know anything about her private life. And she has no respect from Dr. Chaquot and from other doctors. She’s invisible, and she’s facing her biggest fear — can my sister hear me? It’s hard to believe in science, and to talk to her (sister). In the end, she sacrifices herself, obviously, but I feel she’s more free inside the hospital. She can be inside a prison because her spirit is free.
Your movie has this constant, yet closing distance between Eugenie and Genevieve, which culminates in the final climactic scene. How did you plan and maintain that?
What I really wanted to show on the screen was the coolness and the distance between all these human beings who have [a comfortable] life and yet don’t know how to communicate. You have a cold father, a mother who doesn’t know how to protect her own daughter, a very nasty grand- mother. So she’s coming from that cold world, with space between everyone, and arriving in a very crazy hospital where everyone has such a need to touch one another.
You slowly and yet surely close that distance between Eugenie and Genevieve over the course of the movie with camera shots. Talk about that.
At the beginning of the movie, there’s way more tracks to show camera movements and the space between them and their coolness and their inability to talk together. As the movie goes on, there’s more ability to see them touch, almost, and in one scene their hands actually come together. You’re right, it takes the whole movie to close that space between them, because it’s not easy for them.
Breathe was based on a novel. So is Mad Women’s Ball. And HBO’s Galveston was based on a Nic Pizzalatto novel. What is it that attracts you to screen adaptations?
Well, yes, the past three movies were coming from novels. Maybe I don’t have a lot of imagination (Laughs). No, there’s something exciting about adapting a book. For example, Breathe, I read it when I was 18, and I was trauma- tized by the book. And 10 years later I’m adapting the movie and I’d never read the book again. I had memories of it. I did another movie called Diving [released in 2017], and I remembered read- ing the last page and the last six lines and I just pictured the whole movie in those six lines and I closed the book. I’m pretty lucky every time with the writers. I guess that’s key to feeling free to work in this way. It’s always writers who trust the idea that the movie is going to be based on, and I can have the freedom of having my own vision. And with book adaptations, sometimes it’s just one line, sometimes it just the title, sometimes it’s a general story and you make it your own. And weirdly, you have so much space to bring your world into it.
Breathe was about a female relationship. Your next movie, Nightingale, is about the lives of two sisters in France, to be played by Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning. Can you talk about why you like making movies about relationships between women?
My first movie was about two sisters and they had issues about letting a man arrive in their lives. And I think that’s my relationship with cinema and story. I love working with women so much. It’s not part of the spirit of movies right now, about female directors being able to make movies. I always made movies about women, and most of the time they were about strong women. I love actors, but it’s not the same work. It’s not the same relationship. I love working with actresses. I find it so much easier to work with women. It would be interesting for me to go into a very male movie. For now my heart goes naturally to womens’ stories.
Is it that actresses are just better at expressing emotions on screen?
No. It’s not about emotion. I’ve found actresses less complicated, first of all. They’re more open-minded, more accessible, more I’m going to give you that. I’m ready to work and to take your hand and listen to what you have to say, and then all together and we’re going to go somewhere. I think it’s a feeling of maybe more comfortable working with women. Now I love working with male technicians, more than female technicians, sometimes. So it’s funny. I’ve never intellectualized this. I just know as a female director and as a female actress that I’ve made over 40 movies and I’ve worked only with three female directors. And it’s obviously very different.
Mad Women’s Ball will premiere next month at the Toronto Film Festival. How excited are you about that debut?
I’m just so happy to have my movie screen in a big theater. It matters to me to make it with Prime Video. But it just makes sense for me to screen it in a big theater and with an audience that will see it all together and for the movie to be released in so many countries at the same time. You know, when you make a movie and work on its for four years and then your movie goes into two theaters and only for two weeks? It’s the best case that we have with these (online) platforms to make real cinema and also knowing the movie will be seen. It’s a new and interesting way to work. And I’m waiting again for that new world where you can have both: you can see movies in theaters, but also on platforms. I’m sure that fusion will be the way we will work in the future.
You won’t be in-person at the Toronto world premiere though?
No, they just told us that European artists can’t travel because of COVID. That’s so sad.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 11 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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