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‘Augustine’ an obliquely clinical love story

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Charcot Vincent Lindon

Augustine Soko

Constance Chiara Mastroianni

Bourneville Olivier

Music Box Films presents
a film directed and written by Alice Winocour. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 102 minutes. No MPAA rating (clinical female nudity). At the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: June 21, 2013 8:31PM

In the 19th century, French physician Jean-Martin Charcot hypnotized, photographed and studied Louise Augustine Gleizes, a young woman diagnosed with hysteria.

French filmmaker Alice Winocour does the same in “Augustine,” an obliquely clinical love story about Charcot and his patient, Augustine. Like Charcot, Winocour fails to decode Augustine. Hysteria remains a cypher.

Augustine is played by French singer-songwriter Stephanie Sokolinski (a.k.a. Soko) whose album titles “I Thought I Was an Alien” and “My Dreams Dictate My Reality” fit her role here as an afflicted kitchen maid. Winocour alters the historical record, however. Augustine is 19 instead of 14 when she arrives at the famous Salpetriere asylum for women in 1875. Her five-year stay is compressed to a month or so. Omissions include her rape at age 13 and a prior hospital stay. Nor does Winocour show her all-day bouts of yawning, or the one day she suffered 154 seizures.

A furtive courtship unfolds between the dour Charcot (Vincent Lindon) and Augustine, as symptoms migrate around her body. Her paralyzed left hand looks like the claws of boiling crabs she sees in the film’s first shot. The convulsions of a beheaded chicken evoke her erotic fits. Her right eye is shut tight for a period. Fainting spells and falls trigger changes in her condition. No one answers when Augustine asks: “Do you know what I have?” and “Will you cure me?” Another patient counsels her: “Don’t bother praying. No one hears you here. Not even Charcot. It’s Charcot you must pray to here.”

Charcot sneaks to Augustine’s bedside, listening to her murmurs when dreaming. “As with all hysterics, this patient defies the laws of anatomy,” the neurologist lectures. Dubbed the “Napoleon of Neuroses,” and regarded as the founder of modern neurology, the original Charcot is cited for discovering disorders such as multiple sclerosis. “Epilepsy, chorea, hysteria … come to us like so many Sphinxes,” he once wrote.

Winocour untangles the tactical duet between Charcot and his charge. Augustine stages her symptoms to catch his attention, and he trains her to impress potential funders of his hospital. (The Paris elite flocked to weekly performances in an amphitheater that Charcot equipped with spotlights.) Augustine signals her complicity in darting smiles aimed at Charcot.

Less successful is the tense seduction Winocour imagines, although the couple’s foreplay with a Capuchin monkey is weirdly done well. “Augustine” feels like a horror film when a black horse, neighing in terror, bursts through the asylum’s door upon Augustine’s arrival. Jocelyn Pook’s music recalls the erotic dread in her “Eyes Wide Shut” score.

“Augustine” is less accessible than David Cronenberg’s similarly themed “A Dangerous Method” (2011), about the 1904 encounter of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung with a hysteric patient, and Abedallatif Kechiche’s “Black Venus” (2010), which re-created the clinical exams of an African woman by French anatomist George Cuvier in 1814. Winocour opts instead for a murky empowerment lesson.

Bill Stamets is a free-lance writer and reviewer.

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