By Don Simpson | May 14, 2013
Director: Alice Winocour
Writer: Alice Winocour
Starring: Vincent Lindon, Soko, Chiara Mastroianni, Olivier Rabourdin, Lise Lamétrie, Roxane Duran, Sophie Cattani, Grégoire Colin, Ange Ruzé, Stéphan Wojtowicz
Augustine (Soko) is working as a kitchen servant when she has a convulsive fit that sends her to Paris’ Salpêtrière psychiatric hospital with one eye stuck shut and half of her body paralyzed. Determined to get out of the hospital as soon as possible, Augustine attracts the attention of the chief neurologist — Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon) — when she has her next seizure. Charcot almost immediately identifies Augustine as his best chance to convince the Academy to provide him with more funding for Salpêtrière. After diagnosing Augustine with ovarian hysteria — a catch-all diagnosis in 19th century France for women — Charcot’s best guess is that Augustine’s hysteria is rooted in her brain. Augustine quickly becomes Charcot’s pet patient because of her susceptibility to hypnosis. While hypnotized, Augustine’s seizures can easily be triggered by Charcot…almost too easily. The theatricality of Charcot’s presentations draws comparisons to Sarah Bernhardt’s performances and evokes questions about the legitimacy of his research.
Strategically avoiding expository dialogue, writer-director Alice Winocour opts to let the audience contemplate the authenticity of Charcot’s research and come to their own conclusions. We never know when the performance begins and when it ends, but skeptics of hypnotism will surmise fairly early on that Augustine is merely performing. Augustine is given plenty of motivations to do so. (Freud might suggest that Augustine is unconsciously trying to escape her job.) She is rewarded handsomely for her role as Charcot’s prized subject with beautiful new dresses and a private room. Augustine knows that Charcot needs her for the continuance of his career; it is also obvious that Charcot craves Augustine sexually. Charcot is clearly trying to keep Augustine confined in Salpêtrière for as long as possible, and Augustine plays along with the charade for her own benefit. Although Augustine wants to be cured, that would most likely mean returning to a servant’s position. It is in Augustine’s best interest — despite the torturous Cronenbergian medical devices used on her — to remain at Salpêtrière for as long as possible; but she also needs to maintain Charcot’s undivided attention. The possibility that Charcot might discover another star patient is Augustine’s greatest fear.
Augustine is able to make the best out of a horrible situation; she does so by identifying key ways to manipulate Charcot and turn the doctor-patient and male-female power dynamics upside-down. Augustine goes from being a servant to being served; from puppet to puppeteer; a repressed and tortured woman to becoming a person of power and influence. Most importantly, Augustine does this in 19th century France, when women are either wives or servants. The 19th century was an antiquated time when wealthy old white men made important decisions about women’s health issues behind closed doors — this is something that would never, ever happen in the 21st century… Right, America?