Keeping matters opaque diminishes the drama’s intellectual aspects

By Godfrey Cheshire

Chicago Sun-Times

Like other French movies of late, Alice Winocour’s “Augustine” has a lot of surface appeal, especially in its terrific lead performances and handsome visual manner, but little depth or originality in its approach to an intriguing subject: the medical uses made of a female “hysteric” in late 19th-century Paris. Ultimately, while this character-based drama proves consistently engrossing, it leaves various pertinent and fascinating issues frustratingly unexplored.

Winocour’s script is based on a true story involving one of 19th-century France’s most celebrated scientists. Although the film doesn’t go into the extent and many reasons for his reputation, Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), now known as the father of modern neurology, was a pioneer in investigating various ailments from Parkinson’s disease to multiple sclerosis, which he named. His most famous work, and that dealt with in “Augustine,” however, involved hypnosis and females suffering from hysteria.

When we first see Augustine (Soko), who becomes one of his most renowned patients, she’s a serving maid who collapses to the floor in an epileptic-like fit while serving dinner in a bourgeois household. Her recurring affliction not only disrupts the quiet life she’s trying to lead but also leaves her partly paralyzed, with her right eye frozen shut.

Transferred to the care of Charcot, she’s evidently one of many women being studied by the professor, but she gradually becomes a star – a word not used lightly here.

At first, theirs is the strictly professional relationship of doctor and patient. But gradually she begins treating him in a lover-like way – subtly flirting, growing jealous when he goes off on a trip — an attitude to which he ultimately responds in kind.

The visual world that Winocour and cinematographer George Lechaptoir create to surround these characters is one of burnished woods, heavy curtains and a near-constant darkness that throws the brightness of faces and flesh into welcome relief. The setting’s cloistered mood is further enhanced by Jocelyn Pook’s excellent, lyrical score, which also cues us to something noteworthy about the film: it is essentially a romance.

Charcot keeps speaking of a cure for Augustine, and eventually she boils over in frustration, exclaiming, “You keep saying that and nothing happens.” She’s right: Though we see Charcot acting like a dedicated, conscientious scientist, making copious measurements and notes (in real life he reportedly took many photos of Augustine but the film doesn’t include this), we never get a sense of what he makes of her case.

Keeping such matters opaque may indeed sharpen the focus on the purely emotional currents passing between the two characters, but it also inevitably diminishes the drama’s intellectual aspects.

Rather than attempting any similar exploration, “Augustine” simply assumes that the viewer shares certain currently conventional ideas regarding gender, sex, power and the ways medicine can be used to subdue certain behaviors. Within this complex of fashionable but unexamined attitudes, it constructs a movie romance like many another.

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