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A Dangerous Method meets The Elephant Man in writer-director Alice Winocour‘s absorbingly luminous debut feature Augustine, which examines the unusual relationship between a pioneering 19th-century neurologist and his “star” teenage patient. The presence of top-billed Vincent Lindon (Anything For Her) and the renown of his real-life character Professor Charcot will aid the picture’s September bow in France – though the main talking-point will be the break-out performance of mono-monikered singer-turned-actress ‘Soko’ in the demanding title-role. Overall, this is a handsomely-mounted period picture which transcends the stuffiness of costume-drama with sufficient aplomb to warrant arthouse exposure abroad. Festivals specializing in up-and-coming talent, meanwhile, will swoon over Winocour’s exciting promise.
The 36-year-old Parisienne has attracted attention via her quirky shorts, including Cannes-competing Kitchen (2005). She’s also contributed to the script of Ursula Meier‘s Home (2008), which like Augustine focussed on a free-spirited woman in extreme circumstances of restriction. The eponymous heroine here is a quietly-spoken 19-year-old kitchen-maid in 1890s Paris, whose ill-timed grand mal seizure while serving dinner sees her packed off to the imposing Salpêtrière hospital. This facility’s all-female inmates suffer a variety of mental and physical afflictions, some of which are taken as symptoms of the mysterious disease “hysteria” by the establishment’s most senior physician, Jean-Martin Charcot. He takes special interest in Augustine, intrigued by her spectacular fits – and, it’s implied, smitten by her raven-haired beauty.
With the hospital in dire need of “modernization” funding, Charcot must impress the bigwigs who hold the purse-strings. Augustine is thus carefully groomed for lecture-hall displays of her maladies, which are reviewed in the press like theatrical performances.Though illiterate, Augustine is bright enough to know what’s required of her – adding a psycho-somatic aspect to her psychological and physical disorder. Matters are further complicated by her late-dawning sexuality and her extended periods of time spent with the Charcot, whose reasonably happy marriage – to Constance (Chiara Mastroianni) – isn’t perhaps as stimulating as it once was.
The real-life Augustine was actually several years younger than in Winocour’s version, and seems to have been rather more calculating in the way she maintained and exploited her “career” in the public eye. But Augustine‘s script is a coherent and valid artistic reinterpretation of the case, told against an unfussily atmospheric evocation of late 19-century Paris – persuasive even though the dialogue seldom sounds particularly old-fashioned.
Candle-lit interiors are shadowy-dim, while exteriors – mainly in and around the hospital’s woodsy grounds – see cinematographer Georges Lechaptois work wonders with a misty palette of greys and damp greens. The usual crispness of digital video has here been slightly softened to produce an alluringly honey-tinged glow that transports us back in time. Guided by Jocelyn Pook’s restrained score – which gives way to Arvo Pärt’s often-used Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten for the powerful final scenes – we find ourselves to a not-so-distant epoch when medical technology was advancing rapidly but many of whose techniques strike us nowas crude and barbaric.
Even the well-meaning Charcot — known as the ‘Napoleon of the Neuroses’ during his time — was, we now realize, some way off the mark with his hysteria researches. His influence on the development on psychology and psychiatry, however, was immense, not least because of how his work fed into that of Sigmund Freud, who as a young man studied with him for a time. The Freud-Charcot link was played up by dramatist Anna Furse in her 1991 award-winning play Augustine (Big Hysteria), before now the most prominent fictional exploration of the story.
In any telling, Augustine herself provides a fine showcase for an actress. And ‘Soko’ – a 25-year-old formerly known by her full name Stéphanie Sokolinski – compellingly underplays an individual awkwardly caught between girlhood and womanhood by her physical traumas. She certainly confirms the promise that saw her nominated as ‘Best Female Hope’ at the 2006 Césars (for Xavier Giannoli’s In the Beginning), holding her own against the avuncular, ever-observant slyness of the vastly more experienced Lindon, himself a four-time César nominee.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week – Special Screenings), May. 19, 2012.
Production company: Dharamsala
Cast: Soko, Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Olivier Rabourdin, Roxane Duran
Director / Screenwriter: Alice Winocour
Producers: Isabelle Madelaine, Emilie Tisné
Director of photography: Georges Lechaptois
Art director: Arnaud de Moléron
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Sales Agent: Kinology, Paris
No rating, 101 minutes.
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