Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Augstine: Dr. Charcot’s Kind of Dangerous Method

Freud was deeply influenced by his former teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot, even naming his son after the French neurologist.  What did Charcot’s patients think of the man dubbed the “Napoleon of Neuroses?”  That is the whole revisionist question asked throughout Alice Winocour’s Augustine (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Little is known about the mysterious young servant girl called “Augustine,” beyond the fact she was “hysterical.” That was the official blanket term covering a wide range of neurological and psychological disorders.  In Belle Époque France, it was considered almost entirely a female phenomenon—hence Dr. Charcot’s clinic exclusively catered to women.

Augustine is mostly likely suffering from some form of schizophrenia.  Viewers soon suspect good old fashioned Victorian repression is complicating her diagnosis.  Unfortunately, there are no strict Freudians in the house.  However, Dr. Charcot might have an inkling of what troubles the woman.  Through hypnosis he recreates her spectacular fits during his regular public lecture series.  Obviously, this is wildly inappropriate according to contemporary standards of medical ethics.  While they were considered good public relations outreach for Dr. Charcot’s research at the time, Winocour unambiguously and repeatedly emphasizes their exploitative aspects.

Essentially, Winocour’s Augustine plays like a feminist variation on Truffaut’s The Wild Child, driving home its points at every possible opportunity.  Yes, Charcot is using Augustine.  We so get it.  When Augustine starts using her femininity jujitsu-like against Charcot, the film finally jumps le shark.

For all its psychosexual power games, Augustine is bizarrely slow going.  Winocour nicely sets the scene, but is content to leave viewers stewing in it.  Arguably, Vincent Lindon’s performance as Dr. Charcot is too good for Winocour’s purposes, subtly expressing the doubts and misgivings that humanize the Emperor of hysteria.  Conversely, Soko (evidently well known within the French electronica scene) brings a rather pedestrian presence to the film as the ostensible wild child title character.  We never get a sense of danger from her, only an exterior twitchiness, even during her big moments of empowerment.

Costume designer Pascaline Chavanne and production designer Arnaud De Moléron’s team nicely recreate the period details, but Winocour never delves below the surface level.  As a result, Augustine is conspicuously manipulative, stacking the deck in plain viewer sight.  While the subject matter is intriguing, the execution lacks nuance and verve.  For diehard Francophiles, it opens this Friday (5/17) in New York at Film Forum.