Augustine opens with the titular kitchen maid (pop singer Soko) struggling to keep her hands steady as she serves dinner to her upper-class employers and their guests. The diners don’t even notice her plight until she collapses on the floor in a fit that resembles sexual passion, and then they just stand around and watch her for several moments before one of them splashes water on her face.
Writer-director Alice Winocour’s debut feature traces the 19th-century case of Louise Augustine Gleizes, taking some liberties in the process. The teenaged maid is placed in the care of the vast Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris (which at the time treated only women), where she is diagnosed with hysteria and comes to the attention of the famed neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon). Charcot uses hypnosis to induce fits in Augustine for the edification of other medical professionals — who are, of course, all male. The voyeuristic theatricality of these demonstrations makes them sensationally popular.
As Augustine becomes Charcot’s star patient, the doctor begins to treat her differently, providing her with her own quarters and answering her questions (which, before, he had pointedly ignored). An attraction develops, as does a battle of wills, coming to a head in a remarkable scene in which playing with Charcot’s pet monkey Zibide provides an excuse for physical intimacy. But there is no possibility of an enduring connection between the young patient and the married, middle-aged doctor. Augustine pursues a stubborn, personal path of rebellion and self-determination, but Soko’s nuanced portrayal avoids reducing her to a symbol, a martyr, or a mouthpiece. She is cured (if, indeed, she can be said to have been afflicted at all), and becomes invisible once again — except to Charcot.
Winocour gets uniformly excellent performances from the cast (particularly Soko, Lindon, and Chiara Mastroianni as Charcot’s wife Constance). She demonstrates great ease and assurance with the historical setting and complex themes of sexuality and class, and achieves intimacy by juxtaposing straightforward (sometimes handheld) camerawork with soft lighting and static, formally composed exteriors. And she uses direct-to-camera “testimonials” by patients other than Augustine as a surprisingly effective device to provide additional context for the main storyline.
Augustine makes for an illustrative comparison with 2011’s cheeky Hysteria, which explored similar themes. Where that film managed to both flatter the audience (undeservedly) for its modern perspective and condescend to it with unwieldy chunks of historical exposition, Augustine doesn’t tell viewers how to think or feel and rewards efforts to connect the dots. Despite its lack of didacticism, it demonstrates that the concept of “hysteria” is a result of male attempts to construct female sexuality, and that even the loftiest, most sympathetic efforts to advance our understanding of the human body and mind can fall prey to all-too-human vices: egotism, venality, prurience, exploitation, and abuse.