France (101 mi) 2012 d: Alice Winocour
Another strangely unsettling Victorian era mood piece, recalling Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (Arnold) (2011), where more is reflected in tone, unspoken thoughts, and atmospheric visualization than actually providing details or understandable information, written by the first time feature director, where she pulls a story from real life historical events, what little is known, and then reimagines how it might have all played out, finding feminist sentiments within her fictionalized storyline, while keeping her characters completely within their straightjacketed historical times. What starts out as an 1890’s dissection of class divisions ends up as a bizarre study of sexual dominance. The key choice here is the brilliant casting of Soko (singer) (aka Stéphanie Sokolinski), a popular singer in France playing the stricken patient Augustine, an illiterate housemaid serving a wealthy aristocratic family, who suffers an epileptic seizure that causes panic at an evening dinner party, where one of the female hosts rather indelicately throws a pitcher of water in her face. Partially paralyzed afterwards and something of an embarrassment, she’s immediately shuffled off to Salpêtrière Hospital, a sanitarium where the all-male physician staff treats exclusively female patients, where there were as many as 3000 female patients under the care of the chief resident, Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), where he worked and taught for 33 years, drawing students from all over Europe to learn from him. His neurological studies predate the field of psychiatry, where the distress suffered by these women was commonly called hysteria, which amounted to seizures and violent sexual fits, both mental and physical disorders that he believed to be an organic condition brought on by trauma, where in the 16th century these women would have been condemned as witches. To the casual observer, most of the patients were more likely suffering mental disorders, where the hospital was a giant storage grounds housing afflicted women.
When Augustine suffers another seizure on the grounds, she catches the eye of Charcot, not really her medical affliction, but her irrepressible beauty, where in his mind she can become his prized patient arousing interest within the medical profession, as currently the financial operations has a hard time providing enough meat for all the patients. From the start, an ethically and emotionally complicated relationship develops between doctor and patient, where like a dog and pony show, Charcot shows off Augustine as his cash cow, literally staging her in front of other physicians allowing them to examine her in a state of undress, poking and prodding her like a medical specimen, reminiscent of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (Vénus noire) (2010), another historical film obsessed with the naked female anatomy, where sex in the scientific community is never spoken or admitted to, but everything is explained and justified in detailed scientific vernacular. “You use big words to say simple things,” Augustine tells him, responding to the routine of undressing in front of Charcot, an act of debased brutality and horror if he’s not there, taking a certain pleasure in pleasing him when he is. Everything has a sexual context for her, though it’s all expressed silently in facial expressions and body movements, as she rarely utters a word. What we don’t realize initially, of course, is the underlying sexual subtext for the treating doctor, who goes about his business in a thoroughly detached examination process where everything is expressed clinically, all an act to cover up his inner sexual tensions, as he’s more than a little obsessed by this remarkable young woman. The film ignores addressing the medical question of male hysteria while allowing it to dominate the physician’s thoughts throughout, becoming a power play of restraint and social manners, where sex is an unseen force overwhelming everyone’s controlled and orderly lives, where in the picture of restraint, Augustine and Charcot take endless walks in a suffocating fog.
Chiara Mastroianni plays Charcot’s independently wealthy wife, a woman of influence, and certainly capable of seeing through him, though she maintains a respectable distance, never interfering in his profession. It’s her connections initially that lure highly influential physicians to visit Charcot’s medical exhibitions, which play out as pure theater before a leering male audience, inducing Augustine into a submissive state through hypnosis, resembling an exorcism, as she is quickly inhabited by her fit of hysteria, expressing sexual gyrations through fiercely uncontrolled bodily movements, where her physical contortions resemble the paranormal visits to Barbara Hershey in The Entity (1982). Charcot hopes to release the disease’s hold over the patient’s otherwise unexplained partial paralysis by simulating the condition, hoping she will simply snap out of it. The presentation is a bit grotesque, a room filled with men holding invincible, seemingly God-like power over this defenseless woman, yet the men burst into sudden applause afterwords, obviously very pleased with themselves and lauding Charcot’s medical advancement, which produces little more than mere hope, as the paralysis remains. Interestingly, over time, Augustine’s condition improves on its own, each time after a highly traumatic event, actually producing the effect the doctor was hoping for, but without a prestigious audience around to see it. Charcot’s ethics are compromised when he sees signs of improvement, but chooses to ignore them during the most important event in his life, where he’s gathered the most influential team of academics and physicians in France. His career on the line and the funding of his neurology program at the hospital at stake, personal ambition takes precedence over everything else. While all eyes are on him as well, the sleight of hand theatrical nature of hypnotically induced sexual hysteria has the power to persuade men’s souls. Though she’s been an uneducated, culturally repressed, lower class woman, never given the time of day, Augustine is suddenly jettisoned into the spotlight, where these exhibitions have conditioned her to understand the power she holds over men, for the first time taking control over her own sexuality. While the music is by Jocelyn Pook, who also scored Stanley Kubrick’s final film EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), the extraordinary finale is a building crescendo, set to the extravagantly transcendent music of Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten ARVO PÄRT - Cantus in memory of... (4:59), which in this film is nothing less than a liberating walk to freedom.