‘Augustine’ works well enough, but could have been far more challenging

Augustine 2013Directed by Alice Winocour
Written by Winocour
2013, USA

The debut feature from French director Alice Winocour, Augustine, purports to be a true story. Indeed, photographs exist of a patient named Augustine in the hospital of the famed neurologist and physician Jean-Martin Charcot. As in the film, the real Augustine was diagnosed with the then-fashionable disease of “hysteria.” But there is little else in the film that is provably true, and it’s better not to even think of the story as a dramatization of the lives of real people. It’s more of an indictment of the science in the age where it takes place.

Augustine (French singer/actress Soko) has a problem with seizures, one that most doctors of the 19th Century don’t know how to handle. The neurology of the time was primitive: the word “seizure” wasn’t used, and Augustine’s problems are lumped in with all other forms of hysteria, which was a disease associated with women only. Charcot (Claire Denis regular Vincent Lindon) attempts to help her by using hypnosis, but he has the twin problems of insufficient funding for his research and Augustine’s unpredictable mental state.

At a couple of different moments, Winocour shifts the point of view to a series of talking-head interviews with characters who are incarcerated in the same asylum as Augustine. They’re women, all of them, and while some are clearly mentally ill others seem to be merely rebellious or odd. It’s a blunt way to deliver the theme that Winocour is obsessed with: the mental health field in that day was not interested in anyone’s well-being, as much as it was interested in trying to maintain a patriarchal hold over women and their sexuality.

Augustine is best treated as the filmic equivalent of a fugue – each scene is a slightly different variation on that theme. The most interesting variations are focused on Charcot: he’s a radical in his day, but that doesn’t mean he’s apart from the patriarchy. His treatment of Augustine is so personal and sexualized that the only real question is if it’s a seduction or a violation. However, the fugue structure limits Winocour’s ability to answer the questions she raises: each scene, instead of moving toward an answer, just approaches the same question from a different angle.

The most riveting scenes in Augustine are the hypnosis scenes, but not because of Soko or Lindon. They’re both fine actors, but the really interesting response comes from the audience of doctors. There’s a strange sort of disinterest present, which masquerades as scientific detachment. But as Augustine writhes and gropes herself on the floor, it becomes a different sort of detachment, the detachment of a lap dance recipient in a strip club. Just in the creation of that creepy peep-show air, Winocour establishes herself as a talent to watch for the future.

-Mark Young

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