Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 21, 2013 8:11 pm 
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Medicine and desire in nineteenth-century Paris

Paris, winter of 1885. At the Hospital of Pitié Salpêtre, Professor Charcot (he is addressed simply as "Monsieur") studies a mysterious malady: hysteria. Augustine, nineteen years old, an illiterate housemaid, is taken to the hospital, reserved for the insane, by her cousin, Rosalie (Roxane Duran) because she is subject to seizures and partial paralysis. Once noticed by Charcot having a fit, she becomes his favorite guinea pig, the star of his demonstrations of hypnosis. From object of study, she becomes little by little an object of desire. Soko (Stéphanie Sokolinski) as Augustine and Vincent Lindon as Charcot deliver intense performances. In fact this first film by Alice Winocour is an intense experience in every way, visual, auditory, and emotional. But it is also so expressionistic and vague in style that it provides sense impressions, but no thought, emotion, but no information. An important part of the style is the visuals, always partly out of focus, at once suggesting old camera lenses and medicine's constant state of partial confusion. There are a few scenes with an elegant, upper-bourgeoise Chiara Mastroianni as Charcot's heiress wife Constance, who, though aware his attraction to Augustine isn't purely medical, helps him get funding and advance to a key demonstration at the Academy of Science that is the film's climactic public moment. There is also one sweeping, impressionist dinner party sequence slightly reminiscent of Patrick Chéreau's marvelously austere and grand Gabrielle (NYFF 2005). At home, Monsieur Charcot also has an attractive and rather well-behaved monkey. Stylistically, Winocour has impressive antecedents, though in content, this debut of hers is a bit troubling. It seems to set out to shock and mystify, which are not the most humane and civilized of aims, however well and poetically it achieves them.

Winocour is on similar ground with two other recent movies about the history of psychology, David Cronenberg's excessively explanatory 2011 A Dangerous Method (NYFF 2011) about Freud and Jung and their female patient and sometime lover Sabina Spielrein, and Tanya Wexler's frivolous but not uninformative 2012 account of sex-therapy-cum-hysteria-treatment in nineteenth-century England, Hysteria (SFIFF 2012). Cronenberg's approach was explanatory, Wexler's was satirical, and Winocour's is poetic and impressionistic. All provide a shocking picture of male chauvinism and sexism, none more so than this new film, in which it's obvious not only are patients exhibited to galleries of male doctors at learned medical convocations, but these patients all diagnosed with "hysteria" conveniently are young women and examining them requires that they be in various stages of undress. Augustine also brought to mind Abdel Latif's Black Venus (NYFF 2010), the chronicle of a black woman in the nineteenth century who was made into a public spectacle with racist "medical" exhibitions as part of the mix.

Soko is a voluptuous, almost animalistic young actress (also a musician, who composed the film's surging score). Apart from her mixture of dramatic symptoms, her character is deeply contradictory because despite her sensuality, she may also be sexually repressed; at nineteen, she still has not begun menstruating. It's implied that either her "hysteria" or in her case epileptic-style seizures and partial paralysis may be due to sexual repression -- in keeping with the theory of the time that hysteria was a grab-bag women's disease whose seat was the uterus. Charcot is on the frontiers, though, and suspects the brain is the seat of the problems.

Nothing is analyzed or explained on screen -- paralleling Charcot's brusque, imperious manner with patients and staff alike, to which the audience becomes also de facto victim. Augustine seems a prisoner at the hospital, though a favored one: she's taken out of the general ward full of insane people and awarded a kind of chambre de bonne, as well as provided with flashy clothes for public appearances. She prays -- first to God, then on advice of a fellow patient, to Charcot himself -- for a cure, which seems the only way she will gain release. The whole process has an element of charlatanism and carnival, and the convocations are designed progressively to garner public financial support for the hospital and Charcot's experiments. A hint is dropped in that he orders that the patients' meals include meat and it's pointed out extra money will be needed for this, as for the experiments themselves.

Another hint of links with the present is given by having half a dozen current women who've had psychological issues explain them directly to the camera, but dressed in period costume.

Whatever one's reservations one must acknowledge that Alice Winocour has taken on theatrical material and dealt with it with a splendid theatricality. This is an assured debut. Soko draws you in with her explosive helplessness. Lindon, who played a modern doctor recently in Moonchild (Rendez-Vous 2012) as always gives a splendid performance, this time a forbidding, harsh and authoritative one. Winocour takes a lot of liberties but carries it all off.

Augustine debuted at Critics' Fortnight at Cannes, May 2012 and opened in France November 7. It received favorable reviews (Allocine press rating: 3.9). Music Box Films has bought this film for US release but no dates have been announced. Augustine was a nominee at the 2013 Césars for Best First Film, though the winner in this category was Louise Wimmer (Rendez-Vous 2012). The other nominees were Comme des frères, Rengaine and Populaire. Screened for this review as part of the Feb. 28-Mar. 10, 2013 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, a joint enterprise of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance.

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