Object of His Obsession, by Scott Nye
There’s no terror quite like being overcome by some force you cannot understand or control. It’s the premise of so many horror films, which express this innate fear through a variety of supernatural forces, but that same threat is very much a part of the natural world, and one I doubt I am alone in fearing. There are innumerable ways in which your body can suddenly turn against you, and the further one goes back into history, the less explicable these occurrences become for their victim. Case in point – Augustine (played by singer/actress Soko) is a maid in 19th century France who is shipped off to any asylum following a particularly grisly seizure while serving dinner one evening. There she is treated by Professor Charcot (Vincent Lindon), a real neurologist whose studies between 1868 and 1881 lead him to be dubbed “the founder of modern neurology.” Which is all well and good to the development of Western civilization, but quite another to a woman actually suffering during this time, when such diseases were treated under the all-purpose banner of “hysteria.” Alice Windocour’s film, named for its protagonist, takes both approaches, and emerges with a gripping portrait of repression and sexual agency.
When Charcot first notices Augustine, in the midst of one of her seizures, he immediately identifies a perfect subject to display before potential financiers. Yet his interest in her moves quickly from the head to the loins, if indeed it were never in-between. Charcot employs hypnosis to trigger Augustine’s attacks, but they manifest themselves very differently under his command. Whereas her previous episodes will be familiarly gruesome to anyone who has seen such a thing in real life, or even onscreen, when induced, they take on a much more sexual nature, as she claws at her thighs and breasts while moaning loudly. From that point on, Charcot’s treatments, too, become much more sexual in nature, and Augustine’s eager complicity, born purely from a desire to get well, become interpreted as something very different.
There’s an unfortunate timeliness to the film, which I couldn’t say was entirely intended (the film debuted over a year ago at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival), but is not an entirely modern concern, either. As Charcot takes greater and greater interest in her, prescribing everything from medicine to daily activities to the clothes she wears, one (well, at least I) can’t help but reflect on the way in which men of all sorts of professions assume ownership over women’s bodies, assuming it not just their privilege, but their right to assert what’s proper to wear on and do with them. It’s no small thing that Charcot’s much higher position in society than Augustine, as well as the fact that she’s unmarried, allows him to do pretty much whatever he wants in the name of “science,” and without another male figure – a father, husband, or brother – to prevent it, she’s left helpless, literally imprisoned in a hospital that takes on a greater and greater resemblance to jail.
Far from simple polemic, however, this is all greatly complicated by Augustine’s genuine, if not quite improvement then certainly development, under his care. She herself struggles mightily with his methods, while coming to have a certain affection she cannot quite categorize, due perhaps to the fact that, thus far, she’s yet to fully develop, sexually. Windocour, who wrote and directed the film, very carefully navigates the many inexplicable corners of her story (Augustine’s delayed puberty is but one of many medical mysteries), reflecting the limitations of science at the time, but also displaying that science has never been able to explain everything, nor perhaps should it. Accidents come to take on much more vital roles, as procedures sanctioned as being in the best interest of the patient sometimes merely complicate.
Windocour maintains a rigorously delicate aesthetic, one at once necessarily earthy and also ethereal. Some of the images are absolutely haunting, others thoroughly degrading, yet the film is very much of a piece, at once a slave to its era and a meditation on it. Soko is stunning in the lead role, expressing endless uncertainty, confusion, and curiosity through her eyes – Augustine is sidelined throughout the film, even as her body is the primary object of study, and Soko expresses this tension beautifully, never feeling she has a space to assert herself into her own fate. Lindon, meanwhile, has to deal with a similar strife, forever reconsidering and reasserting his motivations. It’s almost as though he fears her eventual agency, and finds more and more aggressive means of defining his role in their relationship, until finally the point comes at which he can do absolutely nothing. The final scenes between them will likely be the cause of much conversation, as each of them stakes inexplicable claims, all the while being the perfect culmination of what we’ve seen to that point. It’s the kind of boldly magnificent storytelling of which we’ll forever be in need, regardless of any perceived drought.
Augustine comes out this Friday in New York at the Film Forum and Elinor Bunin Film Center, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal, Playhouse 7 (in Pasadena), and Town Century 5 (in Encino), and will continue opening nationwide throughout the summer.