Film review: ‘Augustine’ is a subtly unsubtle portrait of sexism

Soko (center) plays a woman in 19th Century France experiencing violent seizures in "Augustine" Credit: Music Box Films
Soko, center, plays a woman in 19th-century France experiencing violent seizures in “Augustine.”
Credit: Music Box Films

Director: Anna Winocour
Stars: Soko, Vincent Lindon
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”) was inundated with awards for what was largely a physical performance: The victim of a stroke, her character was mostly confined to a bed, communicating solely through facial tics that seemed downright alien. Likewise, about half of the performance by mono-named Soko in another French drama, “Augustine,” is a stunt. Her character, a working class teenager in 19th century France, occasionally lapses into violent, inexplicable seizures, the trauma from which leaves her spending a large chunk of the movie with her right eye glued shut. These are the type of actorly tricks that reap accolades, and it’s worth noting that the rest of her performance is equally impressive on another, less showboaty level.

In fact, the rest of “Augustine” is almost low-key to a fault. After experiencing a massive freakout while working a lavish, aristocratic lobster dinner, Soko’s titular waif is carted off to a Parisian psychiatric hospital. Her fits arrest the attention of Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon), a brooding, humorless, pioneering neurologist. In the not-distant past, her episodes would have led people to think her a witch. Charcot suspects it’s a condition related to the brain. He goes to work on Augustine, soon showing her off to other doctors and crowds, who treat her like a circus act. Augustine responds in kind, embellishing her condition for show.

Cloaked in perpetually dim lighting, “Augustine” is subtly unsubtle about its themes, moving from an exploration of class to one of gender. Augustine’s fits become increasingly (and symbolically) orgiastic. Charcot encourages, not suppresses, them. He likes to think himself a forward thinker, who admonishes a dinner party for their regressive takes on women. But he still allows his wife (Chiara Mastroianni) to live a life of servitude and tight dresses, while exploiting his young charge for his own professional gain. It’s a reminder that even progressives tend to allow certain regressive attitudes to persist, even as they get up on a high horse.

Writer-director Alice Winocour makes these points as slyly as she can, and while never losing sight of the most interesting part: the power play relationship between Augustine and Charcot. Theirs is a forever uneasy relationship, fueled by anxieties sexual and otherwise. Both actors stay locked-up and remote, as though their bodies were prisons. But while Augustine sporadically gets a crazed release, Charcot is forever trapped inside himself. Lindon’s performance is the type perfected by Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain”: staying rigid and stern while emotions roil deep inside. This, too, is an actorly stunt. And it works every time.


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