Alice Winocour’s “Augustine,” which chronicles the pioneering 19th Century French neurologist Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot’s work with the titular patient, a seizing 19-year-old kitchenmaid initially diagnosed of “female hysteria,” is less about medical breakthroughs than it is about pent-up sexual desire. Despite his stoic gaze, Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon) is consumed by Augustine’s (Soko’s) sly flirtatiousness between her epileptic fits, which he also clearly sees a certain eroticism in (and often induces for examination). As “Augustine” progresses, consummation of this quiet, but pervasive dynamic seems inevitable.
But it takes a long time to get there—nearly the entire film, in fact—because the subject is sexual repression, not sex itself. Which would be fine if the film had anything particularly profound to say about such repression, but instead it just milks the dynamic for simplistic melodrama. We’re frequently reminded of the obvious implications of consummation: that Dr. Charcot has a lot riding on his professional integrity in his work with Augustine, as he seeks outside funding based on his research, and that Augustine’s motivation for subtly encouraging Dr. Charcot’s fascination with her is likely not pure. This makes for the cinematic embodiment of blue balls and little else.
Sure, writer/director Winocour would like us to unearth something deeper by reading into the film’s long pauses and charged stares between the main characters. Sometimes, this is possible, as the lead performances by Vincent Lindon and French pop-star Soko, as doctor and patient, respectively, offer authentic and thoughtfully conceived interplay. The actors are able to flesh out the power dynamic between Dr. Charcot and Augustine—their behavior toward one another is tied strongly to social hierarchy—which makes for a compelling undercurrent about the direct relationship between class and autonomy. But still, Lindon and Soko can’t provide the film a driving thesis/purpose, the component it most direly needs.
The period trimmings are expectedly impeccable, from the production design and costuming to Georges Lechaptois’ cinematography, which gives what little light there is a piercing severity that feels appropriate for a pre-electrical era. It’s momentarily interesting to glimpse into Dr. Charcot’s hospital, if only to be reminded of how far medicine has come in two centuries. But like the strong performances, the setting-enhancing technical elements are merely intriguing diversions, not substitutes for the film’s overall lack of direction. “Augustine” boasts all the accoutrements necessary for an effective historical drama, but in focusing mostly on the thin sexual thread, Winocour deprives the material of any real heft.