Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Did anybody laugh freely in France in the 1870s, or smile broadly, or have any fun at all? You'd be within your rights to wonder after watching "Augustine," a somnolent period piece that makes the nineteenth century seem about as much fun as the Bubonic Plague. The French singer-actress Soko plays Augustine, a kitchen maid, not yet twenty, shipped off to the female mental hospital Pitié-Salpêtriere on account of the writhing seizures that periodically paralyze one side of her body and leave one eye shut but appear to provide physical pleasure as well. There she's assigned to the psychiatrist Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon), who sees in these episodes of "hysteria" just what he needs to get the attention (and the endowment) of the scientific academy.
Soko is several years too old for this part, but both lead actors do their best to bring life to this stuffy and stodgy material. (I longed for the humor of last year's "Hysteria.") Unfortunately, there's just no meat to these characters. The seizures quickly become repetitive and the gaps between them fill with dead air. By the time a muted wisp of a love story is attempted at the end, the film is truly going through the motions; nobody has his or her heart in it. Nor do the film's sexual politics go anywhere of interest. The fundamental problem is this: When Augustine prays to the archangels to open her closed eye, we wonder why they'd bother when there's nothing worth seeing and no good times to be had.