Home Video Hovel: Augustine, by Sarah Brinks
There was the briefest moment near the beginning of Augustine when I was afraid it was going to be an old-timey version of Girl, Interrupted. Thankfully that fear was quickly put to rest and I was instead presented with an interesting portrait of the beginning of modern neurology and its effects on both patient, physician, and the medical community at large.
Augustine is a French film about a young woman who suffers from seizures which eventually reach a severity that she becomes partially paralyzed on her right side, loosing the ability to control her eyelid. Stuck in a “hysterical wink” Augustine seeks medical attention and is admitted to a facility that focuses on the treatment of feminine hysteria. After suffering another seizure she catches the attention of the head neurologist at the hospital Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon). Charcot was a real doctor in France in the later half of the nineteenth century. Charcot is known as “the founder of modern neurology”. Augustine becomes his prize patient as he presents her in a series of medical lectures where he would hypnotize her and induce one of her seizures for the audience to observe.
The relationship between Augustine and Charcot is a professional one that over time evolves. You subtly see how both Augustine and Charcot become fascinated with each other. For Augustine, her fascination makes perfect sense. She is young, vulnerable, and uneducated when along comes an educated doctor who has taken particular interest in her. For Charcot, he needs her to help progress his studies and career, plus she is a beautiful, young woman completely at his disposal. While he maintains a professional relationship with her you do question his motivations at times.
A major theme throughout the film is voyeurism. Augustine is constantly being observed. They even watch her when she is asleep. The scenes when this voyeurism is most obvious is the lecture scenes when an audience of men sit in bleachers and watch her have “seizures”. These fits are often of a sexual nature mimicking sex acts and masturbation. Augustine is usually in minimal clothing at these lectures which only adds to the voyeuristic feel. The more understated scenes of voyeurism are usually between Charcot and Augustine. Charcot is constantly observing Augustine, even when he is not directly looking at her he is aware of her. There is a scene when Charcot is treating a cut on her back and he finds himself transfixed by the curve of her neck. Scenes like this become heightened as the films goes on. The credit for the success of these scenes with this type of voyeurism go to both the director and the actors, particularly Lindon.
There is also a strong focus on sexual inequality throughout the film. Augustine is diagnosed as having “Ovarian Hysteria”. The only professional women in the movie are servants; maids or nurses. Augustine is forced over and over to endure the humiliation of having induced sexual attacks in front of rooms full of men, she is forced to be naked and experimented on, and has no say or recourse for these situations. We see early in the film that the other female patients are also often forced to undress and be assessed in front of a panel of male doctors. Criticism of Charcot’s work and the inaccuracy of “female hysteria” are addressed in the film along with scenes that are meant to make you question Charcots’ motivation. Charcot’s wife works hard to put her husband in contact with men of influence and authority and is often ignored by her husband at home. We see her read the newspapers to learn more about Augustine, the woman who has captured her husbands attention so fully and is clearly concerned when she hears of Augustine’s beauty.
The performances in the film are quite powerful. Augustine is played by a french singer who recently branched out into acting called Soko. Soko is asked to do a lot in the film and steps up to the challenge. I am often wary of singers-turned-actor, but Soko proved herself by giving both a physically impressive performance but also a subtle, emotional performance. Lindon as Charcot is the stand out actor in the film. He has the kind of face that manages to convey being both completely closed off but also completely emotional. Using the slightest of gestures he manages to show his conflicted pain, guilt, and sadness. I am going to seek out more of his work because like Augustine became fascinated with Charcot the doctor, I have become fascinated with Lindon the actor.
The Blu-ray of the film is beautiful. Augustine visually reminded me a lot of Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. Everything is slightly gray, they use a lot of mist in outdoor shots, and the camera lingers on the actors and their environment to great effect. Director Alice Winocour in her feature length debut lets her film take its time while keeping a strong enough grip to not let it meander. Credit must also be given to her cinematographer, Georges Lechaptois. I don’t think you need to see the film on Blu-ray but if you have the opportunity it is worth it to see it in its full glory. The subtitles in the film are clear, easy to read, and don’t pass along too quickly. The Blu-ray has some interesting features including a still gallery of photos from The Salêtrière of actual hysterical patients and the real Charcot treating them. They are fascinating but also disturbing, be cautious if you are squeamish. There are two of Soko’s music videos, I didn’t really enjoy them but I think that comes down to personal taste. There is an interview and two short films by the director and a recorded Q&A with Soko.
Augustine is a slow but never boring film that examines a real life doctor and his quest to improve neurology and a patient who challenges him personally and professionally. Medicine is a complicated practice particularly psychology and neurology and the people practicing in these fields not machines. Augustine shows how they too can be emotionally affected by the patients they treat. If you take the time to watch Augustine I think you will be captured by its spell the same way as Charcot.