Augustine is one of the harder sorts of films to write about, being handsomely mounted, with appealing leads and an interesting story, a minimum of pandering or condescension towards the audience, and fully aware of the ramifications of its subject matter. The problem is, it’s just not very interesting.
Augustine was a patient of eminent proto-neurologist Dr Charcot (a tutor of Freud’s), in 1870s France. Charcot pioneered investigation of the psychological causes of physical symptoms, specializing in hysteria in women. Augustine was a serving girl, and the film opens with her having a sudden fit whilst serving dinner. The rich folks look on impassively as she convulses suggestively on the floor. Later on, the medical men will gaze at her more pointedly as Charcot exhibits her condition.
Charcot also draws dispassionately on her naked body during his examinations, visually reprised in the marks left by his wife’s corset on her more refined torso. In this era, women of all ranks are constrained, suppressed, ignored, and meant only for spectacle, a separate, inferior species. But we knew that already, even without the chained female monkey in Charcot’s office (or the writhing, headless chicken). The ways this comes about, the methods, the exertions of control and power that bring this about, are left unexamined.
Of more interest in any case, perhaps, might be the relationship between Augustine and Charcot – is she patient or protégé? She has the best fits, and so becomes an unwitting star in Charcot’s demonstrations. He can calmly apply a nasty-sounding compression apparatus to her ovaries, yet they also talk at times like lovers: “You never listen” – “I hate you”. Despite Charcot’s best efforts, a simple fall down the stairs fixes Augustine’s paralyzed hand, and seemingly restores her free will; an act of gratitude is followed by a spontaneous coupling, predictable more as a device than as a development of character. These late episodes suggest a relationship of greater substance and complexity than the rest of the film can manage to suggest.
Soko as Augustine has an appealing, surly presence, frequently seeming to hover on the verge of tears, but the script makes of her almost as much of an object as the medical observers do, limited to such expressions of character as “Why don’t I feel anything?” A relative newcomer to acting, after a YouTube singing break and French stardom, Soko is rather denied the chance to create a satisfactorily three-dimensional character, of which she seems perfectly capable.
Vincent Lindon as Charcot is similarly ill-served. The practical rather than theoretical side of his medical work is emphasized, and his marriage to a tokenistically “strong” woman (Chiara Mastroianni – wasted) is treated cursorily – despite the appearance of communication he is absent. Charcot is an isolated figure, behind the increasingly granite-like visage of Lindon – with such little dynamism in script and direction, he relies on his kindly, concerned, sometimes sad eyes. Although we can tell he cares passionately about his work, there’s little given away as to how he feels about Augustine, or even how true he is being to himself when he speaks with his wife.
The coupling at the end feels all the more perfunctory, therefore, and borderline distasteful. There is no sense that Charcot was holding off until Augustine was cured, although perhaps only now does he see her for the first time as a woman. Neither rings true. It is more like an attempt at a passionate emotional climax to a film theretofore deliberately drained of passion. The episode serves only to objectify Augustine further, and undercuts Charcot’s nobility (foreshadowed by a surprisingly gratuitous shot of his finely-sculpted buttocks at the washstand). This last notion is teased at elsewhere, but one gets the impression that he is meant to be an all-round good guy.
This is not quite a thoughtless heritage production, although it is bolstered by fine design work in sets and costumes, and beautiful photography by Georges Lechaptois, with hazy shafts of natural(istic) window light, in the golden autumnal grounds of the Pitié-Saltpêtrière hospital, or through magical November mist. But it is a film that signally fails to capitalize on or investigate the fertility and implications of its subject matter, paying them mere lip service. Ambiguity is banished, and sluggishness reigns under debutante Alice Winocour’s direction, with only the commitment and quiet charisma of the stars to hold the interest, and brief but intriguing interludes of real female patients recounting their own stories to engage the emotions.
**Augustine opens at Film Forum and Elinor Bunin Film Center in New York, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal in West LA, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, on May 17, 2013.