Director Alice Winocour

Based on real-life people and events, Augustine tells the story of a 19th century teenage girl of the same name who, after a seizure disrupts her life and work as a housemaid, is sent to the Salpêtrière Hospital where the handsome Doctor Charcot looks after hundreds of mentally ill women. Diagnosed with hysteria, Augustine develops a special bond with the doctor. Despite the brutality and suffering the film depicts, first-time director Alice Winocour describes Augustine as a love story. She also revealed that, during filming, the cast told a lot of dirty jokes.

Augustine manages to combine aspects of the medical and the erotic in a unique way.

That was what was fascinating about the subject to me. There were 3000 patients, women, at Salpêtrière kept under influence of Charcot. All the patients were women and all the doctors were men. It was really a world apart. And these women were having all these really violent sexual fits. And these fits were actually exhibited to men, not only doctors, but those high up in Parisian society, as in a peepshow. It was really a place to go to see a sexual seizure.

Something that was really weird to me in researching the film: there were all these pictures of hysterics acting provocatively, and this really weird atmosphere felt very cinematic to me. Also, it involved bodies, women as guinea pigs, as objects of desire. I set out to make a film about this strange world and then I discovered Augustine, the real woman. She was the most photographed and exhibited patient at the hospital. She was the hospital’s big star! Also, because she was probably pretty [Laughs] and not every woman at the hospital was pretty. And she was probably acting for the doctors. I mean, she was not making it up, but Charcot was staging her.

Like a mise-en-scène?

Yes, and in this game between a patients and doctors, women would do these things that men wanted into order to be interesting in their eyes.

Can we take out the word “doctor” and put in the word “director?”

Yes, right. It’s exactly the same thing! They were really like actresses in front of directors, being staged. At that time, and even today, hysteria is really a mysterious disease. You know, “hysteria” is derived from the Greek word “uterus.” And so what is interesting about this was that the doctors, the men, were having these fantasies about the women in treating them: as you saw in the film, remember, the ovarian compressor? But ovaries have nothing to do with this illness. It was all in the men’s fantasies. And hysteria can also be a masculine disease. What I really found interesting was the way in which men were looking at women with this mix of fear and desire. And I think the strange way that men look at women still exists.

What films did you watch in preparation for Augustine?

A lot! I watched, for example, Black Swan. A lot of horror movies, actually, and exorcism films, such as Dario Argento’s films. Suspiria, in particular. Because I really didn’t want a realist approach for Augustine, but rather a gothic, poetic atmosphere. The [aesthetic] was really inspired by the dark, late Romanticism. Like the novels from the end of the 19th century, the Brontë sisters. For example, the garden in Augustine: I wanted it to express this sort of savagery of the unconscious. And everything to me had to be its own self-contained world, its own world apart.

Would you talk about how you came up with this aesthetic?

For instance, when I saw these drawings of the ovarian compressor, Charcot’s drawings. Or the tamed monkey [that Charcot has Augustine play with]. These things were true, they actually existed. These made me think of Cronenberg’s films, like Dead Ringers.

Soko in Augustine

How did you and Soko [the actress who plays Augustine] design and rehearse the fits, the way the seizures would be? Did you watch movies together?

Yes, exactly. This was very important to the movie that she be like a woman possessed by a demon. You know, in the Middle Ages, hysteria in women meant they were considered as witches and they were then burnt. So I thought it was kind of natural to reference films in that genre. And this was crucial to the film. Also crucial was how I was going to stage a lie, because hysteria is a kind of lie. You know, your body is suddenly doing things that it is impossible to do in real life. Which means it’s also really difficult to stage because the whole body becomes a kind of theater. Your head goes backwards and your body goes forwards and, you know, [laughs] even a Russian gymnast couldn’t do these things that real hysterics can do.

So, I used ropes and strings to pull Soko’s arms and legs in all directions—really brutal movements. To me, the body became like a monster. It was like a rebellion of the body [such] that she was like a victim of her own body.  It was really important to me that you could see that she was not in control at all of what was happening to her. Like, for example, possession films—where a monster is coming suddenly to rape you. So, I watched a lot of films like this. For example, this movie with Barbara Hershey, The Entity [dir. Sidney J. Furie]. And also, I was inspired by Evil Dead II, when the man is attacked by his own hand!

Augustine looks like the film had a pretty large budget. But did you?

No! We didn’t, but I’m glad that you say that! It’s funny how people ask me, “But why so many close-ups?” And I say, “Well, because we had no set.” And we had to glue Soko’s eye shut. We had a €4 million budget. For a first feature, it’s a huge project, but for this film, it was very low.

I guess you must have impressed a lot of people with Ordinary People (2009), the film you co-wrote about Serbian soldiers.

Yes. It was also hard to raise the money, but it was fun at the same time.

How did you connect with Vincent Lindon, Soko, and Chiara Mastroianni, the actors who play Dr. Charcot, Augustine and Charcot’s wife, respectively?

I knew I needed to have this erotic tension between Charcot and Augustine, so I knew I needed to have really physical actors. I liked Soko, and I liked how she had waist and hips as 19th century women had…

People in the 19th century had bigger waist and hips?

Yes. Of course.

Because they carried more weight on them, you mean?

Yes, more weight.  And also women were more shaped… And I thought of Renoir’s paintings, the way women looked in them. And Soko had these extensions in her hair. It was very difficult to find Augustine—I looked at more than 300 girls for the part because I wanted a lot of things that were contradictory, like real hysterics have. You know, they are cold and hot at the same time, happy and sad, naive and at the same time they are strong. [Laughs] You know it required a lot. Because the story tells the change of statuses between Augustine and Charcot. At the beginning, she is weak, but then she takes the power and becomes the one on top. I knew that was the path Augustine was going to follow, and I had to find someone capable of doing it. It was really hard until I found Soko.

Soko and Vincent Lindon in Augustine

The first seizure that Augustine has, she’s serving at the table and a man looks at her, and then the seizure begins. What is her relationship with that man?

Ah! Because in the script, in an earlier version, there was a scene where she was raped by that guy. But then I figured it was too much, too easy, that because she was raped, she had a seizure. Because hysteria is much more complex than that and much more mysterious. I liked that you could see in the man’s look that it was sexual and dominating.

Augustine likes to be dominated, but it also makes her ill.

Yeah, it’s like this game. There is a quote by Lacan: “A hysteric is a slave looking for a master to rule over.” To me this was really the film’s guiding saying. She’s not really a victim and not really the one in charge. This is why I asked Vincent and Soko to play the examinations as love scenes. When he’s feeding her soup, it’s to me very much like a blowjob.

And with the ovarian compressor, it’s really a sadomasochistic sequence where she’s getting pleasure from her suffering. And the classes Charcot gives with Augustine shown to an audience of men, they were really like peep shows. I mean, we made jokes nonstop about how we were making everything sexual. It was, in this hospital in the 19th century, all about sex, but no one was talking about it. They pretended hysteria was this very normal disease with phases and all this scientific terminology, but really Charcot was like a little boy frightened of women’s sexuality. He couldn’t even mention sexuality because he did not think it was serious enough. This is what was so strange about those guys: that they were obsessed by sexuality even though they never spoke of it.

How is Augustine cured?

She cures herself, even before the end of the film, before the last lesson, in a few stages. First of all, with his interest, and I would say his love—maybe I’m really weird, but I would say the film is a love story—suddenly she feels like a woman, not a guinea pig nor an object of desire, but she cures herself. And then, also, she falls down the stairs, which is a great shock, an emotional shock. After that she can move her arms again. So by the last lesson, she is already cured; she is acting for Charcot’s benefit, for the audience of men. She’s faking the seizure just to please him.

What were the best sex jokes told on set?
Oh, there were so many! I cannot remember the best. You had to be there. [Laughs] No, but we did it because it was really violent what we were doing, and the jokes were just to feel better. For Soko, we joked it was like the French show called Koh-Lanta—in which contestants must do difficult tasks and survive under difficult conditions.

I think we called that show Survivor.
Ah, yes, well on this show every day is a new struggle to stay alive, so our joke on set was “Today on Koh-Lanta you must to do this and that.” It was really a sadomasochistic film for Soko, who every day was attached to strings and bandages and cables, and then she had to run through brambles too!

But you were the sadist!
Yes, I know, I know. [Laughs] It was hard on me too. 

What are you working on now?
I’m writing another kind of strange love story, that is a thriller: there are car chases. As with Augustine, the story concentrates on a relationship, but it’s contemporary.

You’ve also spoken of male hysteria, am I right?
Why, are you afraid you are a hysteric? [Laughs]

Yes, well, am I? I’m here in part to find out.
Ah, yes but I charge for this. Money! [Laughs]

Are violent movies manifestations of male hysteria?
No, I think even today there are men in hospitals with paralyses that cannot be medically explained. Even today, after Freud, after all this time, we have no explanation for hysteria. I read something about what took place in the U.S. after September 11 where there was an epidemic of people covered in pustules, in skin problems, in rashes, who believed they were victims of a terror attack, perhaps a gas attack. Finally the experts figured out that it was a case of mass hysteria. It spread from school to school, a sequential, collective mass hysteria. Just as we saw in the Middle Ages with people possessed by evil spirits. It’s about the body expressing a trauma that cannot be expressed with words. The body, as with Augustine, becomes the very theater of one’s emotions.

Alice Winocour's Augustine screened at Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. It opens for a theatrical run here on May 17.