In the jarring openings scenes of Augustine, a young kitchen maid collapses in a dramatic crashing of dinnerware in front of horrified guests. If this were Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham would surely jump to the aid of poor, convulsing maid Augustine (Soko) as she writhed on the floor. But her employers aren’t as sympathetic. After dumping a jug of cold water on her head to settle her down, Augustine is shipped to a ladies infirmary.
Her condition baffles the caretakers until she is discovered by Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon), who finds her to be an exciting and perfect specimen of the latest fashionable women’s diagnosis: hysteria. Augustine exhibits partial paralysis, one eye is stuck shut, and one hand is tucked to her body, stuck in a claw. But when she is hypnotized by the doctor, she collapses to the floor in fits. These fits gradually take on a more sexual nature, as she kicks and writhes on the floor, moaning, tearing at her clothes, and rubbing herself. Hm.
Dr. Charcot is not the only doctor raising his monocle in interest at this case. Hoping to be recognized for making a breakthrough in the field, Charcot demonstrates her affliction in front of rooms of curious men, who I’m sure are very curious and interested in witnessing her sexual hysteria. But when the inevitable sexual tension, well, arises between doctor and patient, it becomes less clear what is real, and what is performance when it comes to Augustine’s special affliction.
Now, the craze of women’s hysteria in the 1800s is ripe for exploration. Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, in real-life, was a famed neurologist who made breakthroughs regarding multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, hypnosis, and hysteria. Apparently, Augustine is mushily based on true events, which is fine, but both the young woman and Charcot are somewhat enigmas. He sits, smokes, and writes in his journal. She glowers, doesn’t speak much, and really only has one friend. The sexiest moment in the film actually involves a pet monkey, if you can believe it. Otherwise, I suppose we are meant to believe that the sexual energy sparks simply because of his attentions, and the weird dynamic of a doctor/patient relationship.
By the time the inevitable happens between the two, you simply wish you knew more what was going on in their heads. Instead, as the closing credits roll, you rush to the internet to try to find out more about the real story.