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Movie Blog: Losing My Mind With ‘Augustine’ & ‘Berberian Sound Studio’

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(credit: CBS) Jonathon Sharp
Jonathon Sharp is a web producer and blogger at WCCO.COM. He started...
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Throughout European history, the diagnosis of hysteria has plagued women. The disease — now considered junk science — took so many different forms that a list of possible symptoms could fill some 75 pages. Anything from epileptic-like seizures to “sexual desire” counted. And if you showed such symptoms, Lord have mercy. Lacking any understanding of psychological or neurological disorders, authorities just threw hysterics into prison-like hospitals, where they’d often live out the rest of their days. In such places, doctors would poke and prod in ways we’d find quite inappropriate — all in the name of therapy, of science. And the doctors, of course, were all men.

Augustine, a film by Alice Winocour, explores the relationship between an all-male medical establishment and their imprisoned patients. Our leading character, the teenage Augustine (Soko), finds herself in the system after suffering a seizure while working as a maid. Next thing she knows, she’s in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris under the care of the renowned Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon).

Charcot is a real historical figure. The dude taught Sigmund Freud, and he’s considered by some to be the father of modern neurology. And while he might have done some good science, his work in the realm of female hysteria now seems like a curiosity. For instance, he would put his “star patients” under hypnosis and induced the hysteria — a seizure, an orgasm, something of the two — all in front of an audience of learned, male colleagues. He’d record the demonstrations in pictures, many of which can be found online. It’s hard to tell, in Winocour’s film, if the men in the audience are mesmerized by the scientific phenomenon of Charcot’s displays or by the sick woman arching her back, grabbing her boobs before them. Perhaps they’re taken by both.

Augustine is one of these star patients. She learns early on that Charcot is brilliant and thus she places her hope of being cured in him. Charcot, on the other hand, sees that Augustine can continually “perform” under hypnosis, and he sort of uses her to ensure that his work impresses the men who can fund his research. He continually tells his young star that he’ll cure her, but he’s not all that convincing. Unless, that is, he’s telling her to undress. He commands her to do that with particular authority.

Indeed, the ethics are murky, if not straight-up dark. This comes through in the cinematography: Augustine is beyond chiaroscuro. The characters seem to swim in shadows. And you get the feeling Charcot, enthralled and frustrated in his study, is doing little more than metaphorically feeling the walls for a light switch.

And that’s before he starts feeling and kissing Augustine…

While Augustine has some really nice touches, it left me rather unmoved. Like Charcot’s work, the movie comes off as curious — a well-made, well-acted period piece that raises interesting historical questions but doesn’t quite capture you with its drama. It’s totally worth watching, but not as much as other things out at the moment, like Before Midnight. 

Augustine is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.

Imagine working on a horror movie in the ’70s. Imagine stabbing lettuce heads over and over, recording all the sharp, little squishy sounds, while watching a victim get knifed again and again on screen. Imagine spending hours recording women has they scream and shriek. Imagine what this might do to your dreams.

Berberian Sound Studio gives you more than just an idea. The movie, written and directed by Peter Strickland, brings you into the headspace of a man about to go nuts. And it’s great. Of all the movies I’ve seen this year, this one surprised me most. It’s tight, funny, unpredictable, and not afraid to have fun with the basic elements of cinema.

The fiction follows a quiet English gentleman named Gilderoy (Toby Jones) as he starts doing sound engineering for an Italian horror movie. Oh wait, sorry, it’s not a horror movie — it’s a Santini film. Santini is the director; he’s a pretentious, womanizing jerk. Although Gilderoy is something of a geek, he’s totally our hero. We root for him despite knowing his fate is sealed.

And horror movies, by the way, aren’t Gilderoy’s thing. He’s used to kids shows. Nevertheless, he records women screaming and singing eerily. He adds effects. He goes home and continues experimenting on the torturous recordings. And thus the movie reverberates and swells with nasty noises, making it sound like a horror movie while feeling like a thriller.

To be clear, the movie isn’t scary. But it does play tricks on you. The dream sequences, for instance, are trippy as Takashi Miike, and they also work to intertwine seemingly separate parts of the story. It’s poetic, really.

And then Strickland has these little touches. Like, there’s this place where the murdered melons and lettuce heads go to decay, and he keeps showing close-ups of the growing mold and ooze, suggesting the decomposition of Gilderoy’s mental state. It’s good stuff. Strickland’s directorial and writing talent make me interested — hell, eager — to see what he does next.

Berberian Sound Studio is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.

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