French director Alice Winocour dazzles with her first feature, a scrupulously researched dramatization of a real case from the early days of psychiatry. Lindon plays French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot & Soko plays his “hysterical” patient Augustine, a young woman prone to paralytic attacks & flamboyant seizures. Makes David Cronenberg’s recent film A Dangerous Method look even more ridiculous than ever. Not yet seen by Rich. Click HERE for my FF2 haiku.
Why is the subject of female hysteria suddenly such a hot topic for filmmakers? Alice Winocour’s new film Augustine (from France) is the third in the past year, following David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method (from Canada) and Tanya Wexler’s film Hysteria (from the USA). American audiences rejected Hysteria (which was one of my favorite films of 2012), whereas Canadians embraced A Dangerous Method (giving it so many year end awards and nominations that my head is still spinning). How does Augustine compare?
Looked at from a distance, these films have much in common. All three are costume dramas based on historically-documented facts from late 19th Century Europe: Joseph Mortimer (the physician in Hysteria) practiced in London; Jean-Martin Charcot (the physician in Augustine) practiced in Paris; Carl Jung (the physician in A Dangerous Method) practiced in Zurich. And most of the patients of these esteemed physicians were “high-strung” women who suffered from “nervous disorders” with obscure organic explanations.
Filming Hysteria, director Tanya Wexler was intentionally comic, telling her story with “a marvel of ‘loose/tight’ properties.” For Wexler, the fact that “hysteria” was once considered a legitimate medical diagnosis is totally absurd–the last gasp of the domineering European patriarchy that finally destroyed itself in World War I. I doubt that director David Cronenberg intended to be comic, but the posturing of his high profile cast (which includes Kira Knightly, Michael Fassbender, and Viggo Mortensen) is even more ludicrous.
Alice Winocour, on the other hand, takes her subject seriously, filming Augustine with an intensity that allows absolutely no comic relief. Soko stars as a young Working Class woman who is admitted into the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris after she suffers a flamboyant seizure which leaves her partly paralyzed. She doesn’t want to be there, but after she is examined by Dr. Charcot they develop a push/pull relationship that Winocour finds deeply intruiguing.
Charcot, by that point, was a famous professor who drew students from all around the world (including Sigmund Freud). Augustine proves to be an ideal research subject. With no education to guide her and no instruction from him, Augustine somehow knows just what Charcot wants from her, and she learns to perform on command even though neither of them is consciously aware of how co-dependent they are becoming.
Soko is best-known in France as a singer who is now transitioning into feature films. (Soko is her stage name, short for Stéphanie Sokolinski.) She’s not “pretty” in any conventional way, but her acting is magnetic. She makes us believe that while Charcot is hypnotizing her, she is also mesmerizing him.
Vincent Lindon, who has a long list of French film credits (including numerous Cesar nominations), plays Charcot as cold, aloof, and totally invested in his research, treating Augustine and his other patients much more as objects than subjects. Although not much is known about his domestic life, Winocour has also created a strong supporting role for Chiara Mastroianni as his wife “Constance.” Mastroianni is a very beautiful woman (she’s the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni!), and yet Charcot has no interest in her, which makes a huge impact on the unfolding dynamic. Had she lived in London instead of Paris, one can easily imagine Constance Charcot eventually finding her way into the waiting room of Joseph Mortimer.
I’m not just being flip here. Although they are each coming to the times in very different ways, Tanya Wexler and Alice Winocour are both exploring the constraints on respectable female behavior at what we now know, a century later, to have been the start of the suffrage movement. Who knows what appealed to David Cronenberg, but in this context, he is definitely a throwback!
Photo Credits: Gil Lesage
Click HERE for my review of Hysteria.
Click HERE for my review of A Dangerous Method.