Film Review - Augustine, (2012) Alice Winocour

by Manya Steinkoler

Augustine, (2012) Alice Winocour, dir. Featuring: Vincent Lindon, Soko, Chiara Mastroianni.

It is surprising that a film about Augustine, the great hysteric immortalized in the extensive photographs and case presentations of the neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology Jean-Martin Charcot, was not made earlier. Alice Winocour’s suggestive and rich treatment of this story - a story foundational for the history of psychoanalysis and ultimately determinative for Freud’s revolutionary understanding of hysteria—highlights the importance of the gaze and the medical model of illness as intimately tied to the great flourishing of late 19th century hysterical madness.As such, the story of Augustine is innately cinematic. A dramatic plea to be seen and heard, of the unconscious on display, ‘hard at work’ in her body, the hysteric’s “andere schauplatz” is featured center stage in a theater where she feels right at home - the grand medical amphitheater of La Salpétrière.

The camera opens to a scene of crabs boiling in a pot in the bourgeois kitchen where Augustine is employed as a maid. The crab is being boiled alive among its fellows, and as its shell cannot protect it from the scorching water, despite the fact that the shell is what it had evolved to shield it from environmental changes, it flails its crab arms about as Augustine stares, mesmerized, only to be urged away from this scene back to her duties, serving the guests at the dinner table. The film begins then, with Augustine’s gaze, one we are asked as viewers to identify with as we stare with the camera, straight into the boiling pot. Augustine will be identified with this g aze as she becomes fascinated with the other’s fascination with the question of woman. We recall throughout the film the way the woman comes to “exist” for a man as she embodies the object of fantasy for him. When Lacan would elevate hysteria to the level of a discourse, he did so because hysteria is “invented” in terms of the desire of the Other.

We might recall that the crab never walks simply forward but is known for its sideways path and circuitous movement; one cannot know which way the wily creature will proceed. Further, the crab symbolizes the moon, itself a symbol of the feminine, due to the menstrual cycle. In the very first scene in the boiling kitchen pot, the lower-class maid gazes fixedly at the dying animals destined to be consumed. Quite a bit before we are asked to visit the hospital, we are already smack in the scene of hysteria: is this a legitimate story…or is it just a pot boiler? Augustine serves the food and begins to tremble while pouring the wine. Just prior to her wrist-trembling, the camera - once again identified with her gaze - ever so briefly pans by a man seated at the table who glances at her. This glance - so ephemeral - of the well dressed man at the table - is an erotic one. It is what sets her off, making her shake - as will the gazes of the herd of medical doctors in the amphitheatre, and of course, of their alpha master, Jean-Martin Charcot.

Thus we see from the very first scene, something of Augustine’s desire and of her identification. As object of the gaze, the troubled servant embodies personal, cultural and class-based expectations; the feminine animal is to be looked at and she is meant to perform. Appended to this gaze, the source of her jouissance, are the spasms of real death of the crab and the sexual “petit mort” she will embody in her dramatic “crises.” In other words, her “spasms” are performed for the one who looks at her; she is the subject of this fascinated gaze, one that she finds in the master, Charcot, as the very gaze she identifies with in her interest in the question of woman. These dramatically performed “crises” required such flexibility and strength that the actress Soko had to be specially trained for during months with yoga and dance teachers, as well as special effects coordinators. It seems it is hard work to “be” a hysteric!

The result is that Augustine will explode into convulsions, pulling the table cloth off the exquisitely set dinner table in what will seem to be a frightening and mystifying epileptic fit, resulting in her hospitalization at the Salpétrière. This “mad” gesture, an “accident” of aggression towards the dinner guests and toward her employer aims at the world she cannot belong to, except as an object of the gaze. This is emphasized in the film as we see the annoyance, perhaps even disgust and lack of care shown to the convulsing maid on the dining room floor. We further underline also that her “accidental gesture” also prevents the poor crabs from being eaten since the dinner was spoiled by her convulsive fit just before it could be enjoyed by the guests who will have to go hungry. The erotic gaze of the dinner guest is narratively transformed into Charcot’s gaze, one for whom Augustine will continue to perform, a fact that Winocour does not cease to underline, with his drawings, photographing, staring, and looking through a magnifying glass.

From the very first scene then, we see the importance of the object gaze for the hysteric interms of posing the question of the woman - and “parading” this question before the master, the one Lacan tells us that the hysteric seeks in order to “reign over him,” a sentence with which we could read the entire film.

The inclusion of the depiction of the other women in the Salpétrière hospital in the form of short vignettes is both current and effective making us consider hysteria as relevant to our contemporary moment as well. These short clips serve to underline the contemporary nature of hysteria, foregrounding the women patients as a speaking beings, not just as “objects” to be seen: one cuts, one is strikingly modern and seems to be taken from any college campus today, one is anorexic, one silent, one melancholic, one verbose, another morose, and then there is Augustine, the queen bee, with her dramatic convulsions, underlining the gaze that animates her, the one all the doctors in the audience are blind to.

The Freudian thesis that speech is central and that the “schauplatz” is “anderer,” is depicted filmicly by the consistent chiaroscuro - especially present in all of the domestic scenes which emphasize the role of the unseen, stressing the blind spot in Charcot’s medical approach, in the master’s certainty that he has “cracked the riddle” of the famously dark continent, one he thinks he can know without knowing himself. The chiaroscuro shows rather that the riddle has cracked him.

The theme of the “performing animal” so precious to science is underlined by Winocour by the presence of Charcot’s pet monkey, one that he keeps, rather significantly, chained to his working desk. The fact that Charcot is the “chained monkey” as well, is a fact utterly lost on him. We see that the monkey is part of the Charcot family and is present at the physician’s dinner with his wife, elegantly played by Chiara Mastroianni. Clearly the monkey is not “in” either member of the socially ambitious bourgeois couple’s circle - and yet, the monkey is so often present - and is used as the go-between in the beginning of the seduction scenes between Charcot and Augustine, embodying symbolically, the otherness of the drives.

The animal is further touched upon by the use of the feather that Augustine wears in her hair or carries in her hand when performing her spasms for the on-looking doctors. The feather starts to move and then - boom - a full-on possession crisis ensues - beginning with the trembling feather - she comes in ecstatic orgasm madly on the floor before all. The ticklish aspect of the feather as a symbol is completely ignored - as is its role in 19th century sex toys and games, as well as its denoting a bird in a cage - or here, a hysteric in a medical theater.

The greatest delight of the film is in the “mystery of Augustine’s cure” which “allows her” to finally perform her hysteria as a performance in the ultimate staging of the “legitimacy of Charcot’s findings” in the medical amphitheatre. What happens? Augustine is cured on the very day that she has to show herself to the world as ill! The very day that Charcot will be assured of his place as a master for all time!

Significantly, she is being dressed by attendants preparing her for her great appearance, the one that Charcot has been working up to diligently, that will secure him a place in medical history. For this event, the famous patient is dressed in a beautiful blue dress. Her hair is carefully coiffed; she is like a great actress, or a royal personage. Looking at herself in the mirror - now in the place of the bourgeois woman - the well dressed, upper class woman, she runs out of the room as fast as she can! About to get what she thought she wanted, she runs away and accidentally falls down a flight of stairs. She uses her arms and legs to help break her fall and—lo and behold! Her paralyzed hand is cured! Oh my goodness! She can use her hand! Miracle of miracles! She is cured!

Why does she run from herself all beautifully dressed? Why does she run from the performance so awaited for? What was unbearable to see in the mirror for her? Why is it in falling that she is cured? Perhaps it is not only Charcot who has to fall from his place of master, but Augustine, who must cede her place of privileged object.

Now cured, of her paralysis at least, she will return to the theater to “perform” her illness.The highlight of the film, in my view, is the quick glance she darts at Charcot when she is in an extreme inverted back bend in front of the academy of physicians. “I am pretending!” her glance says. “See? I am cured!” …and of course, the subtext is markedly clear: “You are an idiot!”

Initially, the mystery of Augustine’s crises trigger the production of the master’s knowledge, and at the end of the film, the performed crisis unmasks the fact that the knowledge of the master is ersatz, a phallic defense against his own jouissance. The master does not know - and Augustine the maid has gone all the way to the top to find this out, questioning the “most prominent expert” in the world on the matter. Feather in her cap!

We note then the place where there is knowing, is in the field of the transference. The important notion of transference and in this instance (and in that of Studies on Hysteria), of counter-transference, so important to Anna O. and Breuer and the first work with hysterics is underscored as the center of the drama of the hysteric’s question. Moreover, the inclusion of the gaze in the fabric and narrative of the film gives reason to the operation of Lacan’s invention of the objet a in his understanding of transference elaborated throughout his career.

The problem of the film is the inclusion of the hypothetical and invented last scene - where Charcot and Augustine supposedly “give in” to their sexual passion for one another after the “presentation” of the case, the case that is finally in its proper place as theater, and one known now to Charcot as theater, whose aim was to show the master’s lack. While the sex at such a point might make narrative sense - i.e., now that he is lacking, the master, exposed, can fuck the woman, at the same time, to think that phallic jouissance in the final scene is an “answer” to the hysteric’s question is another way to obfuscate it. As an explanation, it does not leave us - or the characters—with an enigma, and suggests that this “momentary passionate indulgence” is an “answer” to the enigma. In my estimation, there is something “sold out” about the inclusion of this scene. As though “something has to happen.” If not, if there is no “sex,” well, what is the modern audience to think? Where is all this going? Isn’t that the point? Didn’t he always just want to fuck her and vice versa? And where does that leave us?

Perhaps Winocour gets duped by the hysteric’s demand—as though exposing Charcot as a man was an answer to the question and not the beginning of another one. Supposedly, after the sexual interlude, Augustine walks away, now cured of her blindness and paralysis and “curing” Charcot of his blindness and “paralysis” in turn. In order to be cured - Augustine needed to know that the answer and the cure - was also an enigma. After all, she is just as mystified to why she can use her hand as she was as to why she couldn’t. All answers fail to answer the question of the hysteric. Speech cannot answer her question, but the film makes us think there is an answer in jouissance ; it does not help us see this jouissance as a failure of an answer, something that might be helpful in the era when we are “supposed” to enjoy.

We are glad that this obscure maid who lived over a century ago has inspired an interesting new film. And yet, in homage, like Breton, I can’t help but want to return to her august name in opening up a question that visual media can never exhaust. After all, in his surrealist manifesto, Augustine inaugurated the “greatest poetic discovery of the late 19th century” and one whose poetic energy remains, like her dramatic ampitheaterical performances, flexible, adaptable, inventive, and mysterious still.


Back to Ongoings