In Augustine, writer-director Alice Winocour takes us to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in 19th-century France, where Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot used hypnosis to induce and study attacks of hysteria in his female patients. Winocour’s take on this true story carries the superficial trappings of a period drama (the costumes, the dimly lit aristocratic mansions), but its perspective is entirely contemporary, offering a damning criticism of the abusive treatment that occurred in the hospital and, in the relationship between Charcot (Vincent Lindon) and his star patient, Augustine (Soko), a nuanced portrayal of power relations.
From the opening scene, Winocour sets a tense, physical tone. Augustine, at this point a kitchen maid for an aristocratic family, begins to feel ill while serving dinner. Her hands start to shake, and as we expect her to drop a plate or spill the wine, she collapses into a brutal seizure, taking the entire tablecloth down with her. Using quick close-ups and precise editing, Winocour viscerally captures the anguished moment, and the attacks become no easier to watch later when, in the hospital, Charcot begins triggering them repeatedly for the sake of science in front of a crowd of his peers. Rather, as the seizures become part of Charcot’s spectacles, complete sometimes with standing ovations, the pain only receives an added dimension of exploitation. Throughout Augustine, Winocour powerfully portrays the sexual politics of the time as a torment of the body as much as of the mind. Charcot sees altruism in his work and at one point explains to a dinner guest that in the 17th century women were burned at the stake for displaying symptoms that he now treats medically. But shortly after, Winocour cuts to Charcot’s wife removing her corset, and a shot of her burning red torso exhaling with relief is all that’s needed to remind us that the history of feminism is filled with men who patted themselves on the back for behaving better than their grandfathers while ignoring the abuses that existed in their own time.
That’s not to say that Winocour vilifies Charcot completely. She also presents him as a man who privately questions his treatment of Augustine. The heart of the film explores how their doctor-patient relationship turns into an increasingly perilous conflict of equals. For Charcot, Augustine represents a potential breakthrough case that could earn him funding and acknowledgement from the official medical academy. But increasingly she also becomes a source of paternal feeling and sexual attraction. Lindon’s performance finely traces Charcot’s path from authoritative doctor to emotional wreck, though Soko outshines him as she portrays Augustine’s transformation from submissive patient to a confident actor in Charcot’s experiments, one able to fake, and thus derail, a performance at her will.
Their contrasting trajectories, and particularly Augustine’s rise, run the risk of transposing a contemporary feminist vision onto a 19th-century setting, but Winocour never entirely loses sight of the historical period she’s portraying. Even as Augustine realizes Charcot’s self-serving motivations and discovers her power over him, a slight frailty and fear always remains. Because while she can justifiably claim a moral high ground in her power struggle with Charcot and, with time, does attempt to grab control of her own future, it’s also clear that Augustine’s the one who will continue to face true peril regardless, while the only consequences Charcot has to fear are self-pity and professional humiliation.