Freud and Jung might have vied for prominence in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” but Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), who was Freud’s teacher, developed the theory of hysteria that inspired both of them. Alice Winocour’s impressive debut feature, “Augustine,” depicts a Charcot who is showman as much as scientist, whose research and cures, which he insists are intended to free women from the stigma of a misunderstood malady, are also, unintentionally, a means of further subjugating them. Though feminist in her point of view, Winocour does not reduce her characters to caricatures, but depicts them as unwitting actors in the tragedy of a pathological society.
Sounds a bit dry, but the abstract becomes cinematic with the very first scene, a David Lynch-like shot of a crab feebly twitching in a pot of boiling water. Augustine (Soko), the troubled 19-year-old kitchen maid of the title, empathizes with the doomed crustacean, so much so that when she brings the dish in to be served to a dining room full of bejeweled and tuxedoed guests, she throws a violent fit. As she writhes on the floor in what looks increasingly like sexual ecstasy, the shocked diners gaze on, unable to look away.
There were places for people like that back then, and one of the most prestigious was Salpêtrière Hospital, an asylum for 2,000 mostly lower-class female patients. Terrified during her first night in the madhouse, Augustine beseeches her guardian angel for help. “Don’t bother praying,” another patient says. “No one hears you here. Not even Charcot.”
Perhaps Augustine takes that as a challenge. The next day patients line up like groupies to be examined by the stone-faced doctor. He examines some, asks a few brusque questions, and has a photographer take their picture. Augustine is not one of those chosen. She convulses and falls to the floor, and that gets Charcot’s attention.
It turns out Augustine is just what he’s been looking for: an ideal specimen of “ovarian hysteria,” who, when hypnotized, can act out symptoms on cue. Much like the performers in “Now You See Me,” Charcot resembles a huckster when he introduces Augustine to packed medical auditoriums. There are standing ovations, and she is compared to the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. Paris is enthralled; the French Academy showers Charcot with money. Someone asks the doctor sarcastically, “How is your protégée?” Charcot snaps, “She’s a patient! This is not a circus.”
It may not be a circus, but, as we’ve come to expect from similar films, it is somewhat more than a patient-doctor relationship. Though not quite on the level of the bond between Jung and Sabina Spielrein in “A Dangerous Method,” (Spielrein, after all, was from a respectable family), Charcot and Augustine walk together through misty hospital grounds reminiscent of Rochester’s estate in “Jane Eyre.” He talks, she listens, and an intimate connection haltingly forms beneath their mutual illusions. Winocour doesn’t judge, but with Olympian detachment and gripping imagery, and abetted by an outstanding cast, she shows that neither class nor gender matters when it comes to the pain of being human.