Augustine is about the story of a young woman who has an unusual ailment. The titular character, played by Soko, is a kitchen maid in the 1870s. While she is serving at a party, she has a seizure that leaves her partly paralyzed. She is brought to an asylum for women whose various symptoms are considered manifestations of their womanhood.
Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon) is a prominent neurologist during that time. He lives with a gibbon he keeps as a pet and has an heiress wife (Chiara Mastroianni) who supports his career. He is fascinated with Augustine’s case and gives her special privileges.
In one scene, Augustine is seen onstage with a group of doctors watching her go into a trance. She shakes and contorts that seems to be sexual. At one point, she grabs at her crotch as she wriggles. And when she reaches some sort of release, she stops writhing and becomes calm. She goes down the stage as the crowd claps.
Charcot’s fascination with Augustine is partly erotic. He sees himself as a superior. It is not until the final act of Augustine that the two become coworkers. It doesn’t happen until Augustine makes her move. The director manages to take a modernist way to storytelling while not forgetting historical details.
Augustine’s illness is not determined in the movie. Her seizures are symptoms of epilepsy but her paralysis is not. Director Alice Winocour doesn’t attempt to diagnose her or what her treatment might be at present. She breaks the period with testimonies of modern-day women undergoing psychiatric treatment. Their symptoms are real but the speakers are wearing belle époque dresses.
Filmmaker Winocour manages to make her point without saying any words. The wife played by Mastroianni doesn’t say a lot but she has a powerful scene in which the servant removes her corset and the camera shows her strained flesh.