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Friday, June 28, 2013

Film review: 'Augustine' faces some female trouble

WOMAN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN: French singer Soko stars in Alice Winocours debut film Augustine.
  • Courtesy Music Box Films
  • WOMAN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN: French singer Soko stars in Alice Winocour's debut film Augustine.

The part of Augustine in French director Alice Winocour's debut film Augustine requires a talented, intuitive, subtle actress to fill the role, and the French singer Soko - perhaps best known for her hit single "I'll Kill Her" which was sampled by Cee Lo Green on his Stray Bullets mixtape - certainly fills the bill. It's a clever bit of casting: Soko brings a tough, modern edge and a bit of quiet, sublimated anger to the role of a helpless young servant girl in Belle Epoque Paris suffering from hysterical fits, suddenly finding herself at the mercy of a coldly scientific and objectifying medical establishment. More specifically, she's treated by the real historical figure of Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), best known as a predecessor and influencer of William James and Sigmund Freud in the field of modern psychology. Lindon's Charcot is a complicated figure, equal parts showman and healer: he's a principled scientific seeker but also an opportunist, a tortured self-doubter but also something of a charlatan, protector of Augustine and also her exploiter.

But the role of Augustine requires something of the lead actress beyond just fine acting: it requires a sort of visual and personal magnetism, a radiant, crackling electric screen presence, and this is plainly lacking. The whole thing, already a little on the somber and quiet side, tends towards the leaden and inert. (A.O. Scott in the New York Times praised Soko for being as "luminous as a silent-film star." If only! I hereby diagnose that as some wishful thinking).

Moreover, the subject of 19th-century female hysteria has already been so thoroughly dissected by feminists over the years that the territory doesn't exactly feel new or exciting, and the film dwells there, on the icky eroticism and odd power dynamic of the medical examinations which occupy the bulk of the film. Still, there's lovely turnabout to Augustine's announcement that her hysterical paralysis has been cured: Charcot seems suddenly helpless, needy, infantile (his legitimacy and financing are at stake), and she generously fakes an attack for him. It's the sort of moment - twisted, unpredictable, indicative of a larger turning point in the complicated, ugly history of medicine, in the complicated history of men and women - that the film needs more of.

The film's cold, still surface is meant to have an invisible hot undercurrent. It's a daring strategy for a first-time filmmaker to bank on with a first-time actress, but it's often so subtle it's undetectable. While there's truth to the old saying that still waters run deep, sometimes still waters are just still.

"Augustine" starts in Atlanta on Friday, June 28, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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