"You use big words to say simple things," says Augustine, 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, Augustine (Soko) is defiant just by speaking at all, signaling her emerging sense of self. She's also putting her doctor in check, without the film overselling the moment with heavy-handed music or visual cues. Like many acts of resistance waged by the powerless against the powerful, you might miss its significance if you aren't paying close attention.
Augustine was a real figure, the subject of a case-study by Dr. Jean-Marin 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.
Winocour's take on Charcot's evolving relationship with Augustine as he treats her for mysterious seizures in a grim all-women's mental hospital is filtered through an unwavering but not dogmatic feminist perspective — for the most part. Occasionally, her symbolism is heavy-handed, as in the opening moments, as Augustine watches a pot of crabs being steamed alive, but the outrage Winocour stokes is largely measured. The young woman's suffering is made a spectacle in rooms full of male doctors, some of whom all but leer as her violent seizures take a sexual twist. 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.
But Winocour complicates her portrait of the man, not simply relegating him to the realm of the monstrous. He admonishes a dinner guest who's skeptical about his work, pointing out that in centuries prior, emotionally or mentally unstable women were burned as witches.
Augustine is gorgeously shot, lavishly costumed, and well acted by the entire cast. Chiara Mastroianni is especially good in a small role as Charcot's shrewd wife, Constance. Grégoire Colin, best known for his work in the films of Claire Denis, puts in a cameo as a medical photographer. All those elements coalesce smoothly around Winocour's sociopolitical critique. But the film is something of a paradox, simultaneously passionate and dispassionate, its ending tethered to both bruised triumph and a sense of things falling apart.