If you want to see how hard it must have been to exist as a single woman in 19th Century Europe, Augustine presents a rather stark portrait. The film follows the titular character, a patient (French pop singer Soko keeping her character’s pain from feeling overwrought) in the “care” of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (a stoney Vincent Lindon). Charcot was a famed neurologist in Paris who was part of the “hysteria” wave experts, known for treating women with all sorts of ailments by considering their sex as a source of their troubles. Augustine, a 19-year-old kitchen maid who suffers a seizure while serving dinner, arrives at his densely packed all-female psychiatric hospital with her right eyelid paralyzed shut. Let the treatments begin…
Charcot is so overwhelmed with patients he examines them in groups. Before a gathering of male doctors and a throng of female patients he is told by an assistant reading a file that his next patient is “case 1714 … Blanche. She was raped at age 16, at age 12—” Charcot cuts him off: “We know Blanche.” He pulls down her shirt, listens to her breath and notes “It’s spread to her chest. Won’t last long,” and it’s on to the next.
The film presents women of the most powerless kind and men at their most powerful. They seemingly speak in different languages. When Charcot speaks of Augustine’s lack of menstruation during an exam where he marks her naked body with a grease pen trying to divide up where she does and does not feel a hot pin, Augustine walks out rather puzzled. “I don’t understand a word,” she tells a female minder who walks her out of the doctor’s office, “What is menstruation?” The minder only tells her: “You’ll see with the doctor.”
But the disturbing point of this film is a gulf in understanding between the sexes and how men dominated by withholding information during an era widely regarded for celebrating repression. Charcot takes Augustine on a tour of sorts as a case study in hysteria. Over dinner conversation one colleague tells Charcot, “Your hysterics always fascinated me.” It feels as if Augustine is part of a freak show. She receives applause after he has her hypnotized and she reproduces her fits that have an oddly sexual quality with her moaning, “Oui! Oui!” as she sometimes grabs her crotch while writhing on the floor.
For a feature film debut, director Alice Winocour does a fine job. The performances feel sincere, which is especially impressive considering the lead actress is better known as a pop singer in her native France than an actress. Her baby-faced look allows the 27-year-old to get away with playing 19 on a superficial level. However, she also embraces a sensual drive that is particularly challenging for this woman to repress while also tangling with a sense of innocence. It makes for a fine performance that carries the film from one point to another.
The film’s atmosphere is suffused by the foggy, autumnal quality of the dead vegetation outside the almost palatial hospital. The costumes are often dark, except when Augustine is placed on display in brilliant blues and reds, which serve a deeper purpose in highlighting her own eventual awakening from the grip of male dominance. The solitary pain of women during this time is also represented in two surprising interludes where two trios of different women address the camera directly about their own maladies in seeming documentary-style. One speaks of the relief cutting herself gives her. Another, older woman only shakes her head to a question of “How long have you been here?” Another of these talking heads notes, “Women must set themselves free.”
The interludes offer a nice bit of stylization that highlights Winocour’s intention to make a film with a feminist statement about a historical moment where feminism had yet to be defined as an ideology. It recalls a similar sentiment transmitted in Mozart’s Sister, a largely invented story of what life may have been like for Mozart’s older and talented sister who had to exist in the shadow of the prodigy (read the review here). Otherwise, Augustine does little to offer much new with the period drama. A director that handled the period with transporting panache remains Andrea Arnold’s brilliant and inventive take on Wuthering Heights (read my review).
What is also difficult with feminist takes on a history that was oppressive to women, is that rather hopeless feeling of victimization in a social structure where women could be seen as at much as fault for encouraging the oppression as the men in society. The way Augustine is shipped off for treatment after an elderly matron throws a pitcher of water on her during her spasmodic fit at dinner makes the woman seem rather cold and annoyed by this uncontrollable maid. The passive, though encouraging quality of Charcot’s wife, Constance, feels (Chiara Mastroianni) particularly troubling. She never seems to stand for anything but her husband’s further climb toward fame, damn the integrity of their marriage or the women left in his wake. For Augustine, salvation ultimately comes as a personal battle won on a rather private level. It offers a hopeful note, albeit one that is hardly revolutionary for shaking the foundations of the time. At least it offers some form of catharsis for those hoping for some sort of salvation for our sympathetic heroine.
Augustine runs 102 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated, however sexuality is at the heart of this story. It opens today, Friday July 12, in the Miami area at the Tower Theater, in Coral Gables at the Bill Cosford Cinema and in Fort Lauderdale at the Gateway. It has already opened in some theaters across the US and others will follow. For a full list of screening dates, visit the film’s official website: here and click on “theaters” (that’s a hotlink).