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June 22, 2013

In case you haven’t been keeping up, the Obama administration has suggested funding a project to map all the regions and interconnections of the human brain, in analogy with the Clinton-era Human Genome Project. Our understanding of how our brains work grows by leaps and bounds, with so many insights spilling out it’s almost hard to believe that almost nothing was known about them just a century and a half ago. Much of what we first learned about neurology was discovered by Jean-Martin Charcot in his clinic at Salpêtrière in the 1880s.

Of course, medicine in the nineteenth century could be a ghastly affair, particularly for the mentally ill, and even more particularly for women. All manner of behavior could be pathologized under the rubric of “hysteria”, and yes, Charcot did study this “condition” using the contemporary fad of mesmerism — hypnosis — at Salpêtrière. Charcot did, however, reject the idea that hysteria was peculiar to the female anatomy, and instead put forth the hypothesis that it originated in the nervous system, and that men were equally subject to the condition.

This caveat is immaterial to Alice Winocour in making Augustine, as is Charcot’s pioneering work in systemic neurological examinations and diagnoses of neurological diseases from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — “Charcot’s disease” — to Tourette’s syndrome — named for Charcot’s student Georges Gilles de la Tourette. The Charcot she presents is a self-aggrandizing, misogynist fraud, bent on exploiting the women of Salpêtrière to advance his own career. I imagine that, in her hands, Isaac Newton would be reduced to some form of mad alchemist.

The titular Augustine (Soko) is a patient, an illiterate housemaid left numb on her right side after a particularly bad seizure. Charcot (Vincent Lindon) witnesses another seizure and adopts her as one of his most important patients. It’s heavily implied that this is more out of lust for a girl said to resemble Sarah Bernhardt — I don’t see it, myself — than out of any real scientific interest. A pretty girl flopping around on stage is sure to convince L’Académie française to fund the hospital, since the members are little more than a collection of pervy old guys winking and nudging their way through life.

And, indeed, the third of Augustine’s seizures we see is literally orgasmic, with the girl mauling her breasts and crotch as she writhes. Which raises the question, why does this seizure look so different from the others before it? Is it really different? if so, are we really to believe that Charcot is such a failure as a scientist that he makes no note of it? Has Charcot directed her, possibly under hypnosis, to fake it? if so, why doesn’t Winocour show us evidence of the fraud, even after the fact? Or is the third seizure qualitatively the same as the others, but filmed and presented much differently?

However you analyze the scene, we are led to one of two conclusions: either Winocour is a bad filmmaker or she’s an untrustworthy one. She may be omitting crucial parts of the story or accidentally suggesting nonexistent differences. Or she may be setting up a bad straw man or intentionally suggesting nonexistent differences.

Hanlon’s razor suggests that we should prefer to assume that Winocour is merely incompetent rather than downright malicious. But this holds so long as incompetence can adequately explain what we see, and I’m not sure it does. At every turn we see Augustine set upon and exploited by the cartoonishly greedy, grasping M. Charcot. And I’m always suspect of attempts to explain voyeuristic exploitations that encourage us all to get a better view. “Look, isn’t it awful how they ogle her naked body? We’d better put in another nude scene just to be sure we’re disgusted by this behavior.”

Charcot was certainly no saint, and I’m hardly calling for a whitewashing of his memory. But he did lay a lot of groundwork for a branch of medicine that improves millions of people’s lives today. It’s valid to say he was lauded despite the sometimes deplorable conditions he imposed on his patients. It’s valid to say that modern neurology was built on the backs of unfairly outcast women like Augustine. But a cheap hit-piece — bereft of context and playing loose with the facts — is at least unfair if not outright dishonest.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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