The plot outline of “Augustine” sounds like one of those medical mysteries you read about in the newspaper: A young woman reports to the hospital after suffering a seizure that leaves her unable to open her right eye. While being held for observation, she endures additional attacks that cause a lack of sensation on one side, temporary paralysis and other strange, apparently neurological symptoms, including selective colorblindness and the inability to recognize certain scents through one nostril or the other.
One more thing: The seizures, some of which are deliberately induced by her doctor, under hypnosis, appear overtly sexual in nature, accompanied by orgasmic writhing, moaning and grasping of the breasts and crotch. It would make a fascinating case study, were it not for the fact that no conclusive diagnosis or cure is ever identified.
The late-19th-century events depicted in this French drama are, for the most part, true. Its titular protagonist was a real teenage kitchen maid who became the patient of Jean-Martin Charcot, a pioneering physician who is sometimes called the father of modern neurology. This, despite his attributing Augustine’s condition to “hysteria,” a diagnosis once used to describe a panoply of “illnesses,” including sexual desire.
But the film — fiercely yet faithfully imagined by first-time feature filmmaker Alice Winocur — is not exclusively a mystery. It’s also part love story, part horror story, as well as a parable of gender, power and the enduring enigma that is the mind-body connection.
Throughout the film, which is otherwise a conventionally structured drama, Winocur includes documentary-like clips in which contemporary women describe symptoms similar to Augustine’s, while dressed in period garb. Oddly, their stories, which are told directly to Winocur’s camera, sound more like metaphysical experiences than interviews in a doctor’s office.
The heart of the story concerns the relationship between the middle-aged, married Charcot (Vincent Lindon) and his much younger patient, played with mesmerizing intensity by the French singer Soko. What begins as a coolly clinical relationship — in which Augustine’s naked body is poked, prodded and drawn on like a piece of meat — gradually becomes something else entirely. But what exactly?
Augustine becomes, for Charcot, his star patient, quite literally. The doctor regularly parades her in front of an audience of his colleagues, putting her under in order for the medical community to observe and photograph her paroxysms. It’s almost a kind of pornography.
But it’s more than that, too. For Charcot, Augustine is a meal ticket, because he plans to show her off to the members of the Academy of Sciences in a plea for funding. When he calls her a “magnificent patient,” the irony is exquisite.
Does he even want to cure her? Charcot keeps promising Augustine that he will. But with few exceptions, his treatment of her seems less therapeutic than coldly analytic. One particularly uncomfortable scene shows Charcot applying something called an ovarian compressor — it’s like a giant C-clamp — to Augustine’s lower abdomen as she whimpers in pain. Winocur makes sure to draw subtle parallels between the way Charcot cares for Augustine and the way he cares for his tame pet monkey, Zibidie, whom he padlocks to his desk when he’s not playing with her.
And yet there is also a certain tenderness between Charcot and Augustine that softens the gross power imbalance. It isn’t exactly healthy — he’s this godlike healer, and she’s his lump of clay — but there is an affection, too, along with a growing physical attraction.
“Augustine” is neither deadpan historical drama, feminist screed nor sentimental romance. Rather, it’s a little of all three. The movie has plenty of postmodern attitude. But in examining this sad story in hindsight, Winocur tempers the pity we might ordinarily feel for Augustine — or, for that matter, our distaste with Charcot’s methods — with a curiosity that is both genuine and generous.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity, sex and some disturbing medical treatment. In French with subtitles. 102 minutes.