Augustine: period drama struggles under weighty issues of psychology, women’s sexuality and misogyny

Alice Winocour, “Augustine” (2012)

In the early years of the twentieth century in France, the ambitious Professor Charcot (Vincent Lindon) runs a hospital for female patients with psychological maladies. He’s in need of money to keep his hospital financially afloat so he gives weekly seminars to other doctors to demonstrate the importance of his enterprise. Accordingly, he selects the most interesting (as in the most histrionic) patients as his performing animals. One day a young kitchen-maid, Augustine (Stephanie Sokolinski aka Soko), is brought to the hospital by her cousin Rosalie (Roxane Duran) after suffering a hysterical attack at her employers’ dinner party. The young woman quickly comes to the attention of Charcot who, impressed by the strange symptoms and dramatic hysteria of her illness, starts exhibiting her to the other medics of his profession. All too quickly though, he finds himself drawn to this attractive and intelligent girl and this threatens to derail his marriage and jeopardise his professional career and social reputation, to say nothing of what might happen to the hospital, its staff and inmates.

This is a very low-key and spare film that concentrates entirely on the plot to the detriment of much character development beyond that of Augustine and Charcot. Wife Constance (Chiara Mastroianni) has hardly much to do apart from wear lovely period costumes and look like a faded and somewhat haggard beauty neglected by her husband. Lindon underplays his role as the laconic and strait-laced Charcot whose inner conflict is illustrated only by close-ups of facial expressions, in which he appears deep in thought or staring into space, and by a small number of scenes which include a memorable one of him stealing into the sleeping Augustine’s bedroom late at night to touch her and then later masturbating in a bathroom. Soko delivers a credible performance as Augustine: initially a put-upon stereotyped servant girl condemned perhaps to spend the rest of her life forever in an asylum, then selected by Charcot to perform before voyeuristic doctors, Augustine discovers how she can use her illness to exploit Charcot and at the same time help keep his hospital funded. The actor plays Augustine as a woman gradually becoming aware of her sexual power and gaining greater control of her life. Needless to say, as she does so, the illness has less effect on her and she begins to use the attacks and paralysis to her advantage.

The plot is very implausible and strains credibility; there’s no indication of how long Augustine stays in Charcot’s time, nor is there any sense that long periods of time intervene between various episodes in the film. We are meant to assume that Augustine spends several months as Charcot’s star performer while he himself falls in lust with her. Episodes where the missus must have suspected something and thrown hissy fits at Charcot for spending too much time with Augustine are missing, as are also scenes where the hospital staff and inmates must be gossiping about Charcot’s sessions with Augustine and speculating on a possible illicit romance.

Issues that arise in the film – Augustine’s developing sexuality and the effect it has on her, Charcot and others around them, the nature of “hysteria” as a psychological phenomenon and what it says about late 19th century / early 20th century Western attitudes towards women and their sexuality, Augustine’s own coming of age as a woman in control of her destiny, and doctors’ duty of care to their patients as opposed to other concerns they have such as running a hospital or clinic – are dealt with in a fleeting way and remain unanalysed.

The movie is beautifully made with interspersed shots of misty countryside and filmed in a way that emphasises the repressed, hierarchical and formal manner of French society of the time. Interiors are often dark and great attention, almost fetishistic at times, is paid to furnishings, costuming and the use of period props such as the, erm, medical instruments Charcot uses on Augustine. For this reason and for the spare acting, the film will appeal to history buffs on a superficial level; but as an examination of the practice of psychology, an indictment of men’s attitudes towards women and society’s treatment of women like the frustrated caged bird Constance and Augustine, kept ignorant because of her low-born status but offered an opportunity to escape her own cage, “Augustine” fails for lack of nerve and experience on director Alice Winocour’s part (the film is her directorial debut) at this enormous task.

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