Augustine

2012, Movie, 102 mins

Review

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French director Alice Winocour's Augustine transpires in the Belle Epoque of 1890s France. The title character (Soko), an adolescent housemaid, collapses one evening while serving dinner for her upper-crust charges. She lapses into a frenetic seizure, and contracts what appears to be hemiplegia -- with one side of her body completely paralyzed. She's then promptly shuttled off to the Pitie-Salpetriere Psychiatric Hospital. Within a few days, she falls under the care and watchful eye of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), a leonine physician treating numerous women for hysteria. He finds himself drawn to the young girl both erotically and scientifically, but resists crossing ethical boundaries with an overt sexual advance. Meanwhile, the possibility of a cure looms in the distance.

The instincts that prompted writer/director Winocour to spin these actual events into a dramatic narrative were dead on target: The ingredients are here for a first-rate historical saga with bristling insights into the psychology, medicine, and gender politics of period Europe -- the same elements, for example, that Roberto Faenza gave us in his overlooked Freud/Jung psychodrama The Soul Keeper. The first 15 or 20 minutes of Augustine promise great things; Winocour captivates us. As presented here, the heroine is a sloe-eyed virgin with a pent-up sexuality smoldering dangerously beneath oppressive 19th century attire -- an eroticism with a latent capacity for violence. The actress behaviorally manifests the same turmoil that we get from Esther's narration in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. And the movie also captivates during Augustine's initial days at the hospital: Winocour gives us a hushed series of surrealistic enigmas, such as the unsettling silhouettes of people murmuring and cavorting behind a bed divider, and a glimpse of one patient with a bizarre medical abnormality.

All of this suggests magnificent developments to come, but unfortunately, they never arrive and as a result one's patience quickly begins to wear thin. The scenes between Charcot and Augustine, and between Charcot and his wife, are low-key to the point of anemia, and infuriatingly enigmatic as well. What are these characters thinking, and what motivates them? It's almost impossible to tell. The movie comes billed as an erotic drama about Augustine's sexual awakening; that isn't accurate. The picture is more aptly described as a medical drama with extensive treatment and experimentation scenes. That could be fascinating, of course, if Winocour took the time and care in the first act to establish the meaning of hysteria itself, and the related medical misperceptions of this condition. But as it stands, we are thrown into a period in which the limitations of knowledge, and the truth belying what is actually taking place, are equally murky to us -- a fatal error. Even more baffling is the director's decision to repeatedly omit narrative developments that connect the doctors' probing with the onset of seizures in Augustine; if we can't see the full progression of events, how can we interpret the etiology of the young woman's behavior?

The movie does have one scene that hints at great things: a medical sequence late in the film in which Charcot and the other doctors implant a bizarre, vibrator-like device into Augustine's vaginal area. This seems to imply that the male physician is somehow using medical experimentation as a thinly veiled excuse to exercise his frustrated sexual urges and dominate the female patient -- abuse and control masquerading as scientific research. Unfortunately, Winocour fails to elaborate on this idea or explore it any further.

It would be fascinating to know what the writer/director intended here, because the material is so hopelessly muddled. The picture has a great premise, looks stunningly beautiful with its elegant sets, and boasts outstanding performances from its two leads, but at the center it feels hollow and vapid. leave a comment --Nathan Southern

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