Onstage, in front of an audience, the young woman seemingly goes into a trance, overcome by a power that shakes and contorts her. The commotion appears profoundly sexual; she grabs at her crotch as she writhes. When the woman reaches some kind of release, the spell is broken, and she becomes calm. She leaves the stage to enthusiastic applause.
This isn't one of those New Vaudeville acts; it's what passed for medicine in 1870s France. The crowd watching the seizure in Alice Winocour's assured debut feature, Augustine, is a group of doctors, and what they're acclaiming is the work of a prominent neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot. The squirming creature is just a prop.
Charcot (Vincent Lindon) was a real-life figure, and by no means a quack. He made some notable medical discoveries, and counted Sigmund Freud among his students. But he lived in a time when all sorts of women's ailments, whether physical or psychological, were attributed to "ovarian hysteria."
Augustine is more historical drama than feminist parable, but it does attempt to reclaim the identity of one of the many women Charcot treated. Augustine, played with quiet fierceness by the musician-actress Soko, is revealed here as somewhat more than the "magnificent patient" her doctor describes.
When the story begins, Augustine is a 19-year-old kitchen maid. While serving at a dinner party, she has an attack that leaves her partly paralyzed. She's sent to an asylum full of women whose myriad symptoms are all considered manifestations of one aspect of their being: their womanhood.
Charcot is reputable, if eccentric. He lives with a pet gibbon and the heiress wife (Chiara Mastroianni) who helps support his career. Fascinated with Augustine's case, he gives the young woman special privileges, such as a private room; when she goes into a funk, he even feeds her soup, spoonful by spoonful.
Yet despite his fascination with Augustine — a fascination that's partly erotic — Charcot always sees himself as superior. It's not until the film's final act that the two become collaborators of a sort, and the move leading to that change is taken by Augustine, not the doctor.
While not neglecting historical details, the director takes a modernist approach to storytelling, declining to fill in Augustine's backstory. (Reportedly, her childhood was traumatic, but it's not mentioned here.) The movie is intentionally short on expository dialogue and larger context.
Exactly what ailed Augustine, in any case, cannot be determined. Her seizures suggest epilepsy, but the paralysis does not. Winocour doesn't attempt to diagnose her after the fact, or imagine what her treatment might be today. She breaks period in only one significant way — by punctuating the film with brief straight-to-camera testimonies by present-day women in psychiatric treatment. Their symptoms are real and contemporary, but the speakers are dressed in belle epoque clothing. (One other anachronism: Jocelyn Pook's Philip Glass-influenced score.)
Visually, the film conjures the past with shadowy interiors and harsh light. Winocour, who also scripted, often makes her points without words. Mastroianni is given little to say, but she does have an eloquent scene in which a servant removes Mme. Charcot's corset and the camera lingers on her pinched flesh.
"There's not much love in your books," remarks Augustine as she peruses Charcot's medical texts. Ultimately, Winocour does stage an instance of what could be called love. It's unconvincing narratively, alas, and an odd disruption of the tone in a film that is otherwise bracingly clinical.