Augustine

“Our hysterical patients are not witches or feigners,” insists the 19th-century French neurology pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot, in a seminar lecture, to a room full of men who then applaud his hypnotic command of a young woman’s orgasmic seizures. Whether or not this moment of dubious progressivism is historically accurate, it’s key to the debut feature from writer-director Alice Winocour, who had the sharp idea to rework Charcot’s claim to fame as a subversively feminist historical fiction. Winocour’s real protagonist is of course that young woman (French pop singer Soko), the eponymous one special patient, a kitchen maid with whom Charcot (Vincent Lindon) forms a complicated bond. We see how she first caught his eye while writhing in palsied ecstasy on the floor of the psychiatric hospital; how she staged a hunger strike to command his attention and subtly rearrange their power dynamic; how things got out of control when they played together with his pet monkey. We see, Winocour suggests, how things really were. As a brooding drama of Victorian sexual politics, Augustine proves a useful antidote to last year’s too-cutesy vibrator origin story, Hysteria. Ultimately it’s less arresting or profound than its maker may have hoped, but enough so that a one-note indictment of chauvinism takes on a richly tragic bearing.