Judge Gordon Sullivan is sitting in a quiet, dark room.
"A darkly sensuous tale of romance, psychology and sexual politics."
American love Bruce Lee, and it's not hard to see why: he's a total bad-ass who stamped his image on popular culture despite only a short run as a star. In the twenty-first century, though, we're seeing a trend towards going back to Lee's teacher, the famous Ip Man. Several films (including Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster) have recently dealt with this figure—the so-called "legend behind the legend." I may be the first person to compare Bruce Lee to Sigmund Freud, but there are some parallels there. Though hardly as lauded as Lee, Freud is nonetheless an important part of pop culture, from Andy Warhol's portrait to parodies of psychoanalysis in numerous films, the famous Viennese physicians looms over the twentieth century. Though Freud appeared in 2011's A Dangerous Method, no film has really questioned his origin. Though Augustine is not concerned with Freud, it does treat his Ip Man, the renowned French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who gave to Freud both an emphasis on hypnotism and a fascination with hysteria. Augustine gives us one story from Charcot's life, where we see the famous doctor's relationship with his most famous patient. It's an interesting, if slightly uneven, historical drama.
Facts of the Case
Augustine (Soko) is a young housemaid who suffers from sensitivity to light and sound. When she has a full-on attack and physical collapse, she finds herself in the infamous Salpêtri ère. There, she encounters a lot of unsavory people, but Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon, Welcome) stands out as one of the few men in the world interested in curing "hysteria" in women by understanding its causes. The two develop a relationship that will change them both, along with the course of psychology.
At its center, Augustine is the story of a doctor and a patient. Luckily for viewers, this isn't an ordinary doctor nor an ordinary patient. Augustine finds herself in a terrible position—something is obviously wrong with her mentally, but more importantly she finds that her station in life isn't at all good. As a woman and a housemaid she's barely noticed, and then only when she screws up. In the world of the Salpêtri ère she sees that women aren't given much thought, either. That is until she makes an excessively erotic display of her spasms as Charcot happens to be passing by. This leads Augustine on an odyssey that takes her through Parisian society (as hysterics were often trotted out as party tricks), growing ever closer to Charcot. There's no indication that Augustine is putting everything on, but the film indicates that she does have some control. Watching her performance and wondering how much of it is borne of real illness and how much is created by expectation is half of the film's fun.
Charcot himself is interesting as well. He's poised at the frontiers of medical and psychological science. The maps he's working from still have "Here there be monsters" drawn on them. He seems to want to help Augustine and all the women like her, but is constrained by how little he knows. There are also issues of propriety he must navigate, and when he singles out a female patient, these questions become even more pressing.
Both the actors responsible for these central roles are perfectly cast. French pop star Soko brings Augustine to life with surprising grace, while Vincent London has a certain grizzled charm that makes their relationship surprisingly believable.
The film also does an excellent job of building the world that surrounds its main couple. Mental illness was barely beyond the "Lock them up and throw away the key" days, and the film is careful in showing that the doctors were often complicit in maintaining illnesses to benefit themselves. The film also does a fine job highlighting some of the issues with gender in the period. One can't help but wonder if some of Augustine's problems stem from her low station and unrewarding work, not to mention the more general constraints placed on women in the period.
Augustine (Blu-ray) is also excellent. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is strong considering the constraints. A low budget kept the film from using flashy sets. That means that much of the film takes place in darker environments (to mask the lack of sets) and in close-up. The close-ups look great, with plenty of detail in the actors' faces. The rest of the shots are a bit more problematic. They can occasionally be soft, and shadows lack detail. Black levels necessarily fluctuate a bit. The transfer itself does the material justice, but the source isn't the visual knockout that many HD fans might want. The DTS-HD 5.1 track in the film's native French is more impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and well-balanced with the film's score. The surrounds get a workout in the asylum sequences. It's not a reference track, but for a low-key drama, it's great.
Extras start with more info about director Alice Winocour. We get a text bio and 6-minute interview with her, as well as two of her short films ("Kitchen" and "Magic Paris"). Next up is a series of extras on Soko, including another text bio and a longer interview (36 minutes), as well as two of her music videos. A stills gallery includes a number of historical photos from the Salpêtri ère. One might wish for even more info or a featurette on this famous establishment, but these photos are fascinating both aesthetically and historically. Finally, we get French and American trailers for the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Augustine is a slow-burn foreign drama that plays much of its tension out through glances and significant looks. Obviously this kind of drama isn't going to appeal to everyone, and those who want either a bit more conventional romance or a faster plot will be disappointed.
Augustine is an interesting historical drama that avoids taking the usual romantic angle with its leads. It's well-acted and provides an interesting take on historical material. Fans of foreign drama and filmmaking by women should give it a shot.
Not hysterical, but also not guilty.
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Studio: Music Box Films
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