Alice Winocour’s debut feature, Augustine, is a period drama about a maid who is treated for seizures by the pioneering 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Like David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, the film focuses on a doctor-patient power struggle and counterposes dry medical speak with repressed sexuality. However, unlike A Dangerous Method—an outwardly restrained movie with sinister undercurrents—Augustine keeps all of its ideas on the surface.
The title character is a teenage house servant who suffers from what was then called “hysteria:” sexualized convulsions that leave her squirming on the floor, grabbing at her crotch. She’s played by Soko, a singer with rustic features—big jaw, sullen eyes framed by thick brows, raven-black hair. She isn’t a waif; she looks like someone who has grown up working. If nothing else, Augustine is credibly cast; for the most part, its actors look like 19th-century people, not 21st-century people playing dress-up.
Soko is sent for treatment to Salpêtrière Hospital. There she catches the eyes of Charcot, played by Vincent Lindon. He’s forward-thinking, and yet—like Soko—very much a product of his time and upbringing. Lindon and his colleagues are all educated, upper-class men, and their patients are exclusively uneducated, working-class women; much of Augustine is motivated by how the characters navigate this class/gender divide while still keeping their place. Lindon wants to cure Augustine’s illness, but he’s motivated by science rather than compassion, and never treats her or any of his patients as equals. Soko, in turn, is a powerless person, a working-class woman who can no longer work. In order to gain something close to an equal footing with Lindon, she has to be standoffish and difficult.
Augustine is a movie with a big backdrop—issues of class, the workings of the mind, a changing society—and a narrow focus. It’s effectively a two-hander about a couple of people who try to make the most of their lives without ever violating social rules. Its world is small but convincing. The production design, by Arnaud De Moleron (best known for his work with Claire Denis), and costuming, by François Ozon regular Pascaline Chavanne, are detail-rich but un-showy. This isn’t an opulent, ball-gown 19th century, but a dim, hardscrabble one, where everything must be cleaned by hand, and getting mud on your clothes is a source of boundless anxiety. Whenever the movie tries to reach for something bigger—like when it tries to tie its hospital/drawing-room drama to a larger world—it ends up being stifled by its own style. It’s ironic that a movie about social restrictions is at its best when it restrains itself—that is, when it treats its characters as characters rather than figures, and its plot as drama rather than statement.