Augustine, directed by Alice Winocour , is an examination of the real case story and unusual relationship between Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the pioneering 19th century French neurologist – whom Sigmund Freud studied under – and Augustine, his star teenage patient.
After suffering an inexplicable seizure which leaves her paralyzed on her right side, 19-year-old illiterate kitchen maid Augustine (27 year-old singer-turned-actress Soko in a break out performance), is shipped off to Paris’ all female psychiatric hospital Pitié-Salpêtriere which specializes in detecting the then-fashionable ailment of ‘hysteria’. Augustine captures the attention of Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon, Mademoiselle Chambon, Welcome) after a seizure, which appears to give her intense physical pleasure. Intrigued, he begins using her as his principal subject hypnotizing her in front of fellow doctors – as she displays her spectacular fits in lecture halls – and eventually blurring the lines between doctor and patient.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you encounter the subject of Augustine?
Alice Winocour: Actually, I read a book about hysteria and I was immediately fascinated by the subject about these 3000 women kept in the hospital, I fell in love with the subject. Then I read a lot to research the story and discovered the story of the real Augustine who was the patient of Dr Charcot, and I discovered she was Charcot’s favorite patient and that she escaped the hospital dressed as a man, based on medical records. So I began to imagine what could have been her relationship with Dr. Charcot and how an object of study becomes an object of desire.
BT: The interesting part is that this story is transferred to the language of cinema so well. You don’t need an explanation to understand what the actress is going through. Did you achieve that from your visual style or from working with the actress?
AW: I thought it was really cinematic because it was about bodies and men looking at women, which is sort of the essence of cinema. So filming those bodies, I wanted the film to be sensual and there to be erotic tension between Charcot and Augustine. I also wanted to create an atmosphere like in a horror movie; when I was preparing the film I watched a lot of exorcism films, like The Exorcist or Dario Argento films… I really wanted to be close to that atmosphere and I treated Augustine as a possessed woman.
BT: One film director who touched me very much with his work is Georges Franju, and this is the second time I see something in the same genre as his work.
AW: That’s a great compliment. His are really amazing films. I really wanted this strange and bizarre atmosphere with the closed eyes of Augustine and all those bodies. I like the strangeness in Franju’s films. I also wanted a naturalist approach, a classic, poetic atmosphere. I was inspired by the dark romanticism of the novels from the late 19th century.
BT: There is something interesting about this film: while you have this interesting film, you see some touches of surrealism in the film, some surprise elements.
AW: I really thought of films by Cronenberg or David Lynch for inspiration, where they create a universe. The Salpêtrière Hospital only had women, from the popular classes, and all the doctors were men and they were observing them all day long, having some examinations — some very brutal examinations, and also, like you see in the film, they had exhibitions of the patients in front of the high Parisian society, they were exhibiting sexual fits and sexual seizures… and so this whole atmosphere, the whole historical background was really an inspiration. Lots of things I show in the film are real; the tamed monkey of Charcot was real. Sometimes reality was more surreal than fiction. I did a lot of research but still I wanted to forget everything and have a cinematic approach and follow this strange love story.
BT: How did you go about casting for Augustine?
AW: It was really difficult to find Augustine because, as you see in the film, the part is not easy but I wanted someone who could be something and its exact opposite at the same time so it wasn’t easy! I’ve seen more than 300 women at the auditions, and then I found Soko, who’s a pop singer. Actually she lives in L.A. What I liked about her is she was really in the 21st century but her body really fit with the 19th century. We had dresses coming from London, real dresses, and they were perfectly right for her because she has the waist and hips as women had back then. She also had an inner strength and at the same time she was naïve but not a victim… so I thought she was perfect for the part.
BT: What is the next project you are working?
AW: My next project is another strange love story but it’s contemporary and it’s more of a thriller or horror movie.