The hysterics contained in Alice Winocour's "Augustine" -- and "hysteria" is what it's about -- can't obscure the understated, smoldering subtext of what is a sometimes playfully smart and irony-laden story.
In 1885 Paris, at the Pitié Salpêtrière hospital, a young housemaid named Augustine (Soko) is admitted, suffering from fits that tend to occur at the most inopportune times -- in the middle of her employer's dinner party, for instance -- and have an unmistakable erotic nature. She's a disturbance, obviously, clearly suffering something both wild and real -- her right eye clamps shut after one fit; later, her eye opens and her arm curls up into a claw. She is a victim of hysteria, that all-purpose 19th century female affliction rooted in sexual repression.
Fortunately for Augustine -- and us -- she comes under the care of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), who is underfunded, overworked and trying to convince the medical community that the roots of these exclusively female eruptions have treatable causes. Augustine becomes his performing monkey, so to speak, being put under hypnosis and exhibiting her fits for whatever audience Charcot thinks will help his cause. Augustine's writhing has a predictable effect on her all-male audience; Winocour treats it subtly, but smartly.
But despite a terrific performance by the single-named Soko, it's Lindon, a French national treasure, who owns the film. Charcot, hardly immune to Augustine's sometimes feral charms, wrestles with his erotic impulses, his loyalty to wife Constance (Chiara Mastroianni) and his sympathies to his patient. It's a wonderfully nuanced performance, in a highly intelligent film.
PLOT In 1885 Paris, a young woman suffering strange convulsions comes under the care of the real-life father of neurology, Jean-Martin Charcot.
CAST Vincent Lindon, Soko, Chiara Mastroianni
BOTTOM LINE Gripping, adult-oriented drama, a deft mix of science and sensuality (in French with English subtitles)