"You use big words to say simple things," says Augustine (Soko), an illiterate kitchen maid, to the esteemed doctor treating her for the distinctly female malady "hysteria." This would be a show of boilerplate feistiness in most films, but in writer-director Alice Winocour's Augustine, it stands as a subtler, more complex victory. Having been largely silent or monosyllabic for much of the film, subjected to all manner of brutal poking and prodding in the name of science, the fact that she has spoken at all is something of a defiant act, a signal of her emerging sense of self. Augustine was a real life figure, subject of a case-study by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, a pioneering 19th-century French neurologist who claimed Freud as a student. The doctor (played by Vincent Lindon) was a formidable man, a celebrity who revolutionized the ways patients were diagnosed and treated while also forging breakthroughs in conceptualizing the workings of the brain itself (thus setting the stage for modern neurology). But according to Winocour's film, his bedside manner was often unthinkingly cruel. Charcot's brusque manner, the way he ignores Augustine's questions and callously manhandles her nude body, underscores an imbalance of power that has everything to do with differences in gender and class. He wields that power in an especially punitive way once his sexual attraction to his star patient gets the better of him. Gorgeously shot, lavishly costumed, and well acted, Augustine is something of a paradox, simultaneously passionate and dispassionate, its ending tethered to both bruised triumph and a sense of things falling apart.
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