The doctor-patient relationship at the center of the striking debut feature "Augustine" is modern for its time, the late 19th century. Yet it feels primitive, and not merely because of what we know about the period's scientific limitations.
As told by filmmaker Alice Winocour, the story of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and the teenage kitchen maid Augustine who became one of his most celebrated cases alternates between impenetrable Gothic shadow and dreamy Baroque light. It's a story of women's "hysteria," the catch-all term for mysterious symptoms like Augustine's, and a story of primal female power — debased, dissected and displayed.
The film's dark beauty and the quiet intensity of the performances have a discomforting pull. Singer-actress Soko plays the 19-year-old title character, who arrives at Paris' Salpêtrière hospital after a seizure leaves her partly paralyzed. The ambitious Charcot (Vincent Lindon) is fascinated, and in short order she's the main attraction in his presentations to colleagues.
During voyeuristic conclaves, Augustine is hypnotized into fits that leave her writhing on the floor. She's essentially stripped down to a psychosexual vortex, and as she's carried out of the lecture hall, often in a state of post-orgasmic calm, the men of science heartily applaud.
Like many horror stories, this one is also one of progress. In the medieval pile of Salpêtrière, with its wards full of female psychiatric patients, Augustine prays to the guardian angels and Charcot wields ungodly contraptions. But he also, presciently, studies cross sections of brains and argues that his patients are ill, not possessed. (He was a key influence on Sigmund Freud.)
As Augustine's growing confidence becomes a potentially deranging force, Lindon and Soko bring acute subtlety to the shifting balance between torment and grace.
"Augustine." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.