DVD/Stream of the Week: AUGUSTINE: obsession, passion and the birth of a science

The absorbing French drama Augustine is based on the real work of 19th century medical research pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot, known as the father of neurology. A young kitchen maid begins suffering wild seizures and is brought to Charcot’s research hospital. He ascertains the triggers for the seizures, and begins to close in on cure. Needing funding for his research, he triggers her seizures before groups of his peers; he is showing off his research, but it’s clear that his affluent male audience is titillated by the comely girl’s orgasmic thrashes.

She is drawn to this man whose kindness to her belies their class difference and whose brilliance is the key to her recovery. The good doctor intends to cure her – but not until she has performed for his potential funders. She is unexpectedly cured just before Charcot’s most important demonstration, and she gets to decide whether to continue her exploitation. In the stunning conclusion, she gets the upper hand and her simmering feelings erupt.

The fine French actor Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon) excels at playing very contained and reserved characters, and here he nails Charcot’s clash of decency and professional ambition.

The French pop singer Soko is captivating as his patient. Last week, I noted the feral fierceness and simmering intensity of Soko is The Stopover, a film that I just saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILMFestival). That’s why I was moved to make Augustine this week’s video pick.

It’s an auspicious first feature film for writer-director Alice Winocour. She has constructed a story that about two sympathetic characters whose interests converge, then diverge and then… Since Augustine, Winocur has co-written the wonderful Mustang and directed Disorder.

Augustine is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

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