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Backstage With…. Melanie Laurent: Female relationships, sanity and misogyny in The Mad Women’s Ball

Written by on 18 September 2021

While audiences will perhaps recognise Melanie Laurent from her breakout Hollywood role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds or more recently from Netflix’s big budget action movie Six Underground, she’s probably less well known as a director.

Her film-making credits include the award-winning documentary Tomorrow and critically acclaimed coming of age drama Breathe, and now her newest movie The Mad Women’s Ball, which sees her taking on roles both in front of, and behind the camera.

The film, which is adapted from a book, is set in 19th century France, where women deemed as “difficult” or “hysterical” are committed to a strict neurology clinic – leading to many of them suffering from mental illnesses that they didn’t have before they arrived.

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It’s a study of female relationships, sanity and misogyny and Laurent told Sky News’ Backstage Podcast that despite being set in another century, the themes remain relevant now.

“That was the purpose of what I wanted to do – I just had a baby girl and I was looking for a modern subject and I really wanted to make a sort of feminist movie, even if I hate that term,” she explained.

“And then when I thought about very feminist stories, I didn’t want to do that anymore and I wanted to just make a movie about women more – a portrait of women.

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“And then I was like, but I don’t want to focus on just women because I want to tell more things, and then that book arrived in my life and the book had everything.”

The book – by Victoria Mas – is a prize-winning French best-seller.

Laurent has form for successfully adapting novels, and said this one had everything she was looking for.

Laurent also stars in The Mad Women's Ball Image: Laurent also stars in The Mad Women’s Ball

“It had all those themes about belief, about love, about prisoners, about rebirth, spirit, spirituality, the female condition, women’s rights, science, I mean, it was so complete,” she said.

“And she [the author Victoria Mas] found a very cinematic structure – in a very small book by the way – and she had everything because she focussed on humanity and she focused on those women who were bringing so many things.

“And instead of having all those themes, very complex ones, to be heavy, she just focused on those people, and the prison started to become a playground for all those relationships and all those sorority and all those beautiful female relationships.”

Laurent’s next project will again see her adapting a novel – the hugely popular Second World War novel The Nightingale.

The film is already getting attention for its casting – as real-life sisters Elle and Dakota Fanning will play on-screen siblings for the first time in the drama.

The film shows the darker side of life for women in 19th Century France Image: The film shows the darker side of life for women in 19th Century France

Laurent says she usually uses her instinct to know which books will work on screen.

She said: “Because I’m only adapting books for years – except for my first movie that I wrote by myself – I think I’m reading books with the potential of adaptation, like I’m reading scripts as a potential of acting in it.

“It’s just a matter of do I see pictures? Do I see images? Is it obvious that I’m seeing something? And if it’s not, I’m not going [to do it] because I’m not going to be able to fight against that.

“I need to be touched and I need to feel like this is the right thing I want to do, because it’s two or three years of my life after that so I need to be extremely sure about at least those characters that I’m going to spend so much time with.”

The Mad Women’s Ball is out on Amazon Prime Video now – hear more about the film and our interview with Melanie Laurent in the latest episode of Backstage, the film and TV podcast from Sky News.