France (2012) Dir. Alice Winocour

Paris, 1890 and while serving dinner at a party full of guests 19 year-old kitchen maid Augustine (Soko) is suddenly hit by a seizure which paralyses the right side of the face, sealing her eye shut. Augustine is admitted to the Salpêtrière Hospital, an establishment exclusively for women with mental and physical ailments. The head doctor is noted neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon) who takes a special interest in Augustine and the unusual nature of her fits. While his initial curiosity is medical, the hospital is in need of modernising and Charcot thinks Augustine might be the perfect attraction to help persuade the money men to sponsor him.

The debut feature from screenwriter Alice Winocour is a dark and sombre affair that offers a fictional account of a real life incident featuring the celebrated French neurologist whose work and influence on the medical world and the study of mental and physical ailments is unprecedented. Charcot, who counted Sigmund Freud among his students, was a pioneer in understanding of hysteria and psychological related conditions as well as an early investigator of what we now know as Parkinson’s Disease. While this film explores some of his practices and methods in diagnosing and healing his patients, the relationship between Charcot and Augustine simmers quietly away beneath this atmospheric gothic tale.

Perhaps somewhat typical of the class divide, when Augustine’s first seizure hits the reaction of her rich employers is to dump a jug of water over her face to calm her down. Thankfully her cousin and fellow maid Rosalie (Roxane Duran) was a bit more understanding and takes Augustine to the doctor, her right eye now stubbornly shut, various body parts no longer prone to nervous reactions. Baffled the doctor refers Augustine to Salpêtrière, which has all the aesthetic presence of a Dickensian orphanage and similarly po-faced staff to match. Initially linking most of his patients’ problems to hysteria Charcot is forced to re-evaluate his assessment when confronted with Augustine.

Stuck in a superficially content but apparently drab marriage to wife Constance (Chiara Mastroianni), it seems that Augustine may be offering the good doctor some excitement of a different kind although this remains largely implied for the most part. On her part, Augustine’s sexual awakening coupled with Charcot’s attentive bedside manner does wonders for the young girl, playing up and refusing to eat whenever Charcot is away from the hospital. She may be illiterate but Augustine is canny enough to know that she features in Charcot’s medical lectures, learning to embellish her “performances” for maximum effect. It certainly is a sight to see her writhing on the floor in an orgasmic frenzy to wild applause from the stuffy medical elite!

The mostly dark settings lit by candle light or natural light from outside create a brooding atmosphere fully in touch with the pre-modern age era of late 19th century Paris. However this is not all visually bleak, as flashes of strong vibrant colours peek through the musky palette their presence becoming more prominent in Augustine’s life as her condition improves; the dowdy black dress making way for a startling red frock and finally a glistening blue gown.

Elsewhere the frightful looking medical equipment of the time suggests one might be watching one of the many Hammer horror versions of Frankenstein. With various pressure points on Augustine’s body not responsive to touch, Charcot applies painful looking clamps and straps to her nubile figure in order to establish and temper the cause of her fits. It looks as primitive as it sounds, but by the same token it is a fascinating expose into the medical practices of the time. Similarly Winocour’s script takes great care in exploring the advancements in understanding of mental and neurological conditions detailing Charcot’s discoveries while attempting to cure Augustine, even if his hysteria diagnosis was a little inaccurate.

As much as this is a faithful re-enactment of a bygone era, the film is ultimately about the two key players, the onus of bringing them to life and keeping the audience invested in their individual and collective plights resting heavily on the chosen leads. Vincent Lindon is a multi-award winning actor who has a varied catalogue of roles to his name, calling upon his years of experience to deliver a measured yet oddly enigmatic turn as the famed doctor. Lindon has the rough, well lived features to pull of a role that is required to bring the esteem and gravitas to a character, wonderfully contrasted by the sullen glamour of Chiara Mastroianni as Charcot’s faithful and quietly wanting wife.

Despite this pedigree the film belongs to the intriguingly named Soko (aka Stéphanie Sokolinski), a singer and actress who has experienced many ups and downs in her career, which one can assume she must have drawn upon for this stunning performance here. A lot is asked of Soko to portray someone who is partially unresponsive yet is clearly suffering at the hands of an imprisoning condition. Augustine is simple but not dumb, stoic but not unemotional, frightened but not weak. Soko gives a lot of herself here in what can be rightfully described as a career making turn which offers much excitement for audiences should she tackle a similarly ambitious and demanding role in the future.

Sharing the future prospect mantel is Alice Winocour who has already proven herself with the pen and now puts in an impressive first showing as a director. With Augustine showcasing Winocour’s flair for the period piece, it will be interesting to see how she handles other genres in modern settings. A good first effort that might be too art house for some but an engaging watch for others.