This week the Mediascape Blog is running a series of posts by Laura Swanbeck on the 2013 ColCoa Film Festival.
Audacious and complex in its depiction of a young woman suffering from hysteria in 1890s Paris, Alice Winocour’s debut feature showcases the impressive talents of acting veteran Vincent Lindon (A Few Hours of Spring) and compelling newcomer Soko (born Stéphanie Sokolinski) as the eponymous Augustine. Based on a real-life case, the film opens with French maid Augustine suffering an epileptic seizure right in the middle of working a lavish dinner party. Following this unseemly event, she is swiftly sent to Salpêtrière, an asylum where she encounters French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Lindon), who is intrigued by her debilitating symptoms, which include oscillating paralysis of half her face as well as her limbs. Charcot, most prominently recognized as the teacher of William James and Sigmund Freud, takes her on as a patient, motivated more strongly by his ambition to introduce a breakthrough study in medicine than any altruism on his part.
In an interesting modernist approach, Winocour, who was influenced by Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Dario Argento’s Suspiria, refuses to delve into the origins of Augustine’s debilitating malady. Instead, she doesn’t allow her main character to be defined by the poverty and abuse of her earlier history. In fact, as Soko divulged at ColCoa, Winocour explicitly asked that she not research the role, as her real-life counterpart was unaware of what was physically and psychologically happening to her own body. In addition, Winocour populated the sanitarium with former mental patients, which lends the picture an authenticity and dimension to truly flesh out its world.
Contained mostly within the asylum, the film does venture into Charcot’s home life with his marriage to heiress Constance (Chiara Mastroianni). However, most of the action focuses on the travails of Augustine, trapped inside a body she has no control over—much like many other young women on the precipice of adulthood. Charcot’s interest in Augustine manifests itself partly as the fascination of an inquisitive clinician and partly as the erotic attraction of a man to a troubled young woman whose episodes leave her writhing on the floor in ecstasy. While for the majority of the film Charcot has the upper hand in their relationship, in the surprising third act Augustine regains her agency as she pretends to perform her symptoms for a roomful of male scientists who stare at her in awe as if she were a circus animal. This calls to mind Lacan’s observation that “a hysteric is a slave looking for a master to rule over.” This ending is also Winocour’s way of exposing how gender, and femininity specifically, is performative. In an interview with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Winocour even goes so far as to equate the doctor/patient relationship in her film with that of the director/actress in terms of staging and fluctuating power dynamics.
Soko’s fearless performance imbues the film with a fierce intensity, while Lindon is careful to avoid the trap of simply reducing Charcot to a predatory figure. In the vein of such films as David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Augustine explores the intrinsic link between psychology’s origins and its misogynistic tendencies. During Charcot’s tenure at Salpêtrière, 3,000 patients—all women—were placed in his care in a hospital staffed with male doctors. This disparity intrigued Winocour and drew her to the project in the first place. Rather than a straight-up historical biopic, Winocour infuses Augustine with a gothic ambiance, aided by Georges Lechaptois’s dimly-lit cinematography as well as Jocelyn Pook’s understated score. In addition, Winocour intercuts the film with testimonials of real-life women undergoing psychiatric treatment. While this direct-address approach sometimes serves as a superfluous embellishment and an unnecessary distraction in films such as Jane Campion’s 1996 adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, Winocour’s decision to intersperse these segments throughout gives her debut film a freshness and resonance which transcends historical specificity.
Augustine is currently out in limited release in New York and Los Angeles. Music Box Films has acquired distribution rights domestically.
Laura Swanbeck is a staunch cinephile, film festival enthusiast, and Master’s student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. She spent the last few years working in film programming and championing independent filmmakers at the California Film Institute and San Francisco Film Society. Areas of interest include Middle Eastern and European transnational cinema with a specific focus on immigration, exile, and diaspora. Currently she’s enamored with French film after covering the ColCoa Film Festival. She has recurring nightmares about DCP issues, unabashedly loves feminist film theory, and probably would have been Pauline Kael’s arch-nemesis had she been born a few decades earlier.