Film Review: Augustine

A lushly filmed, fascinating true story about the relationship between a groundbreaking French doctor and his 'hysteric' female patient buries itself with a simplistic approach and deadly-dull dialogue.

In real life, Jean-Martin Charcot was a famous 19th-century French doctor and the father of neurology. A groundbreaking researcher who could count Freud as one of his patients, he was also accused of overt theatricality and some dubious methods. As shown in Alice Winocour’s high-potential but stillborn drama Augustine, Charcot may have also been something of a fake, or possibly taken in by patients looking less for a cure than for attention. In the end, both sides may well have been just different pieces in the same elaborate theatrical production.

Charcot’s star patient, Augustine (Soko), first appears as a diffident young maid in a large household. During a dinner, she abruptly crashes to the floor and begins to spasm as though having a seizure. Without much delay, she is rushed off to a sanitarium that seems to be a catchall receptacle for women considered by 19th-century medicine to be “hysterics.” Augustine is examined by Charcot (a grim Vincent Lindon), who barely speaks as he pushes her this way and that. It isn’t long before Augustine’s condition—besides the seizures, she’s also stuck with a lazy eyelid and curled-up hand she can’t use—draws Charcot’s attention. Soon, he’s presenting her to peers in the grand showcases that seem more theatre than science.

Ever the diligent researcher, Charcot is drawn by novelty, and that’s something which Augustine provides in spades. The more he watches her and applies his vaguely barbaric methods (all those clamps and belts, prodding the girl as though she were livestock), the more pointedly quiescent she becomes, as though the willing participant in some nonverbal bondage relationship. Charcot’s obsession with using Augustine to prove various facets of his neurological theories doesn’t escape the notice of his brooding wife, Constance (a wasted Chiara Mastroianni).

What escapes the audience, however, is any clear explication of what’s going through Charcot’s head at any given time. Far too much of the film revolves around him soundlessly circling Augustine, that glum face of his giving nothing away, while she watches him like prey that’s soon to be predator. There’s shivery intent in those scenes at first, particularly with the suggestion that Augustine could be less afflicted than she appears, but little comes of it.

Say what one will about David Cronenberg’s Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud story A Dangerous Method, which dealt with similar issues of power and knowledge and authenticity, it knew how to integrate the scientific with the dramatic. Without providing much of any background for what Charcot was struggling to prove, and how much of a trailblazer he truly was, Winocour loses the opportunity to invest his research with the electric thrill of discovery.

Augustine is a pretty package, at least, with George Lechaptois’s sumptuously dark cinematography and a spare score by Jocelyn Pook. And although Winocour’s script leaves numerous opportunities ignored, at the least it doesn’t try to pass judgment on its characters. For all their quite obvious missteps, they do seem to be operating less under malice than confusion. Ultimately, however, that generosity of spirit is scant reward for those who have waded through the film’s stiff-backed period melodrama.