Movie Review

Augustine, directed by Alice Winocour

Alice Winocour’s new movie draws its subject from the life of Augustine Gleizes, a young female servant, born in 1861, whose seizures and hysterical symptoms were probably set off by the physical and sexual abuse that she had suffered in earlier years. Confined in the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, she was treated by the great French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot who becomes in the movie a figure of both heroism and tragedy.

Both patient and doctor were remarkable individuals. Charcot had risen from a humble background to become world famous for his treatment of the mentally ill and particularly courageous in his fight against the Catholic churches stigmatizing of hysterics as women who had sexually sinned.

Charcot married the heiress of a great fortune, played beautifully by Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, and she enabled him to entertain the literati of Paris in sumptuous fashion. They in their turn elevated him to the status of a great doctor and representative of progressive reason. Augustine eventually escaped the hospital in which she lived for ten years disguised as a man. She was never found and no further trace of her remains. The movie beautifully evokes the passionate dynamic between these three people and the uncanny quality of Augustine’s disappearance.

The idea of a movie about the relationship between Charcot and Augustine and the turbulence this created in his marriage is particularly apt because so much of what Charcot was doing with his hysterical patients was informed by theater and the nascent art of photography.

While the history of the Salpêtrière hospital is unlikely to be familiar to most viewers, Augustine is well known in the literature about hysteria as the “star” hysteric among the extraordinary group of women who Charcot treated in the hospital during the 1880s. One of Charcot’s doctors learned photography and created a remarkable photographic record of the various moments in Augustine’s hysterical crisis.

The subject of hysteria is, unsurprisingly, going to provoke some moments of Grand Guignol and melodrama but
Ms Winocour’s movie is graced by three fine performances by the French singer Soko, who plays Augustine, Vincent Lindon, who plays Charcot, and the afore-mentioned Ms. Mastroianni, who all clearly share their director’s passion for the period and the story.

With “Augustine,” Ms Winocour, who has garned praise for her short films and her collaborations on scripts, has made a remarkable debut on the international movie scene. She has publicly announced that her guiding statement while making the movie was Jacques Lacan’s comment that “the hysteric is a slave who is seeking a master to overthrow.”

Winocour provides a richly detailed historical context for the unfolding of a remarkable story of desire, seduction, and recovery and I have a feeling that a wider audience will find her depiction of hysteria far more interesting than the one provided by David Cronenberg in “A Dangerous Method.”

Unlike Freud and Jung, the figure, and certainly the significance, of Dr. Charcot will be unknown to most American viewers and I doubt they will have the expectations, suspicions, and perhaps prejudices that a movie focusing on Freud and Jung inevitably arouses. Instead viewers will be intrigued by the fundamental mystery of hysteria and its capacity to overthrow the contemporary medical and scientific accounts of the relation between the body, memory, and psyche.

What is extraordinary about Winocour’s movie is that she has been able to represent both the reality of the symptoms of hysteria– the seizures, the imitation of sexual acts, the erotic attraction to and conflict with doctors and medical staff, and the degree to which the illness was also “performative.”

Most analysts know that Freud studied under and revered Charcot (his first son was named after him) but Freud’s reservation about Charcot was that he was a “grand visuel” – a doctor whose diagnosis was based on what he saw rather than what he heard.

Winocour does a superb job of showing Charcot’s obsession with identifying the sequence of symptoms and his passion for organizing them in terms of a visual tableaux or scene. He was, in one sense, like a theater or film director, and no doubt his “stars” knew that they would be loved by him if their illness increased his prestige. Charcot, at least subliminally, encouraged the women under his care to “perform” these crises in front of medical students and other doctors to support and confirm his own theory of the illness, but maybe the fame they accrued was an important part of their cure.
Later historians of psychiatry have, understandably, questioned the ethics of these performances because they are undeniably linked to the horrific history of the display and mockery of the mentally ill. However, as this film reveals, sometimes the hysteric does manage to overthrow the master, and in doing so allows her attachment to her symptom to disappear.