Augustine

Gustave Flaubert’s character, Emma Bovary, is the archetypical embodiment of the mid-nineteenth century female hysteric.  In the novel Madame Bovary she once proclaimed

“For an infinity of passion can be contained in one minute, like a crowd in a small space.”

With a shrewd eye for detail, director Alice Winocour accomplishes this feat in her portrayal of Augustine – a timid, nineteen-year-old kitchen maid who experiences frequent “hysterical” attacks. In her first feature length film, Winocour weaves years’ worth of French medical history into a mere hour and a half.

The film begins with Augustine (Soko), serving shellfish at a grandiose, Parisian dinner party. Suddenly, she falls to the floor in a fit of convulsions. Like a twitching bug, Augustine writhes beneath the party guests’ contemptuous stares until she is dusted beneath the carpet, so to speak, and whisked off to the Hospice de la Salpêtrière.

The Salpêtrière was Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot’s distinguished psychiatric hospital of the Belle Époque. In one particular shot, we witness nineteenth-century textbook symptoms of hysteria as they parade through the Salpêtrière’s mess hall. In these moments, Augustine is saturated with detail and history. While some patients careen wildly about their surroundings, others suffer from paralysis as a result of their conditions. Augustine herself suffers from paralysis; after two attacks of hysteria, she loses control of her left eye and arm.  Still, some patients appear perfectly sane. Women at this time were being labeled insane both for killing their husbands, and for displaying benign social deviance.

However, it is at the hospital that Augustine loses its momentum. Lacking substantial storyline and character development, Augustine’s arc becomes more of a case study than a compelling narrative. After three lengthy scenes of hysterical attacks and repetitive harried examinations, I craved a change of pace, an inciting incident, a story. Winocour hinted at Charcot’s wife’s envy of Augustine, but little excitement ensued.

Nonetheless, Augustine is impressive in its remarkable authenticity. Soko’s performance awakens the character of Augustine, who for so long has remained dormant in the clinical notes of Charcot. The film traces Charcot’s gradual realization of Augustine’s personhood, and pushes audience members to do the same. We begin to understand Augustine’s guile as she embellishes her hysterical attacks before Charcot’s medical cronies, and relishes the newfound attention she receives from the hospital staff.

Eventually, the inevitable affair between Augustine and Charcot unfolds. Though the deaths of innocent animals often catalyze Augustine’s attacks (the boiling of crabs at the start of the film, and the beheading of a chicken at the Salpêtrière), it is the loss of her personal and private innocence that spurs her recovery. As sexual tension between Charcot and Augustine escalates, Augustine regains control of both her paralyzed hand and her confidence.

Augustine is presented with remarkable realism. The overt glamour, characteristic of a Hollywood feature, is practically nonexistent – as is made evident with a rather nauseating scene involving Charcot and Augustine’s affair. As far as I could tell, the film seemed extremely accurate, with intermittent, non-diegetic interviews involving actual dialogue from patients. In its effect, viewers cringe at the glaring misogynistic atmosphere of the Salpêtrière, and the detached, clinical gaze of its “professionals.”  During a Q&A Winocour mentioned that Augustine “was an important story that needed to be told because women around the world still struggle to have autonomy over themselves.”

Viewers stand alongside Augustine as she is poked and prodded, callously showcased, and degenerated by lofty and pretentious male doctors. Gustave Flaubert remarks in regards to storytelling, that “your thoughts are caught up in the story, dallying with the details or following the course of the plot, you enter into characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their costumes.” On the merit of its narrative, Augustine is unimpressive. However, as an entrance into the historical world of the Salpêtrière, Augustine is extraordinary.

Augustine screens at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema Sunday March 3rd at 6pm and Tuesday March 5th at 9pm.