In nineteenth-century Paris, Augustine (Soko), a quietly intense 19 year old, works as a kitchen maid in an upper class home. She has a mysterious malady. When she becomes anxious, she falls to the ground with violent seizures resembling epileptic fits. While serving at a dinner party she has an especially severe seizure. Her cousin Rosalie (Roxane Duran) then has her admitted to an all women psychiatric hospital. The prevailing view of mental illness at the time is that a dysfunction of the uterus causes women to descend into "hysteria."
Jean-Martin Charot (Vincent Lindon) is the hospital's most prestigious doctor; this character is based on a real 19th century physician known as the "Napoleon of Neuroses." He is married to Constance (Chiara Mastroianni) who willingly uses her money and influence to advance his career by getting him a chance to speak at the Academy of Sciences. At one of his weekly seminars at the hospital, Augustine has another fit and soon becomes Charot's prize patient. He moves her into a room of her own with amenities not given to anyone else.
Writer and director Alice Winocour has crafted a fascinating study of sexual politics during the Victorian era when chauvinism reigned supreme. The film shows how certain women broke out of the prison of prejudice using their sexual power as the key to freedom. Charot senses that Augustine's fits have nothing to with her private parts but are caused by a problem in her brain. His thinking becomes clouded when his libido kicks into gear after witnessing the erotic frenzy of her seizures.
In one of the most sensual scenes in the film, the doctor introduces Augustine to his pet monkey and together they fall into a swoon while petting the animal and rubbing against each other. In another telling sequence, the doctor feeds a bowl of soup to his bed-ridden prize patient and we realize that she has now taken charge in their relationship. As his demonstration with Augustine before the Academy of Sciences approaches, we wonder what will happen between the two of them as they stand before the men who have come to see the by-now notorious seizures of the exotic young woman.
Augustine is a psychological thriller that explores fresh territory with its complex depiction of sexual politics.
Special features on the DVD include "Hysteria" gallery: photography from The Salpêtrière; an interview with director Alice Winocour; a Q&A with Soko; 2 music videos by Soko; Kitchen and Magic Paris - two additional films by Alice Winocour.
Screened at the Rendev-Vous with French Cinema 2013, Film Society of Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater.