“Augustine” is a drama set in the medical world of 19th-century France, where women were poked, prodded and placed on display because of fits of “hysteria,” which appears to have boiled down to any psychological issue.
With her sharp close-ups of protagonist Augustine (Soko), a teenage kitchen maid who is paralyzed on half her body after a seizure, filmmaker Alice Winocour evokes the harshness that comes with regarding humans as purely objects of study. The perverse male gaze is a strong and powerful force in this movie, bearing down on Augustine from her doctor (Vincent London) and other observers of her “treatment.”
But the movie would be an unceasingly bleak enterprise if that were it. So, at the same time, the film traces Augustine’s discovery of her womanhood and assertion of her sexuality. The film is really about the character’s gradual reclaiming of her physical self from the men who seek control.
This is an impressive work, in which every shot has been meticulously structured and silent staring communicates more than words. It’s quite a technical feat, stripping the Belle Epoque setting down to its bestial essence.
But the clinical nature of the project makes it hard to be involved in Augustine’s story, the strong sexual attraction between doctor and patient is undercooked and the sparseness keeps you at a distance. It’s as if we’re right up there watching with the other doctors, or suffering alongside Augustine. Neither is a pleasant place to be.