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Exclusive Interview: 'Augustine' Writer-Director Alice Winocour

Posted September 13, 2013 03:48 PM by Jeffrey Kauffman

Music Box FilmsFrench filmmaker Alice Winocour is making her feature film writing and directing debut with Augustine, a film which examines in fictional form the real life interaction between noted French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, and one of his favorite patients, a woman who is known only by her first name of Augustine but who is immortalized in a series of photographs Charcot took to document his studies in hysteria. staff reviewer Jeffrey Kauffman had the opportunity to interview Winocour, who was in Paris, by phone.

Bonjour. Ça va?

Oh, vous parlez Français?

Oui, je parle un peu, mais j'etais à Paris l'été dernier avec ma famille. And that's about the extent of what I feel comfortable saying in French, so let's move on to English. There was a real Charcot, of course, but there's precious little information on the real Augustine. What can you tell us about her?

There really isn't much information about her. There's a fantastic book called Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris by Asti Hustvedt that has some really interesting information in it, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. The real life Augustine was the favorite patient of Charcot. We know that she was exhibited, as were many patients in that time, in front of high Parisian society, almost like a peep show. And we know that she escaped from the hospital dressed as a man.

So how did you decide to approach this subject, since one of the characters is kind of a mystery?

I fictionalized the story and got my inspiration from the huge iconography of the pictures Charcot took—so many pictures. Charcot's studies of hysterics arrived at almost the same time as photography arrived, and so this was the first time a naturopathy of photography was utilized. But these photographs are also why Augustine became so famous. She was really pretty and was the "big star" of Charcot's photographs.

Do we know what ultimately happened to her?

We know next to nothing about her, unfortunately. It's a really big mystery and what is most interesting to me. I've tried to imagine the relationship between Augustine and Charcot and what could have happened to them.

What is it that drew you to this material?

I've had a long interest in hysteria. Hysteria is not only a disease, it's kind of like Pandora's Box and allows me to talk about desire, power, the relationship between men and women. There are so many subjects wrapped up in this story. There's the medical stuff and personal stuff, but also the erotic elements that make things really cinematic.

One of the things that really struck me about the film was the manifest difference between the seizures that are depicted. Tell me your thoughts on why these are shown to be so very different in character.

You're absolutely right and that is a very keen observation. There are three seizures, all of them very different. The first one we wanted to be very natural, and so we had Soko actually pulled by strings, like a marionette, so that the movements did not appear forced or fake. I wanted it to be something like a ghost in the body, with no control over the legs. Almost like you'd see in a horror movie. The first seizure was really, really violent, not at all sexual. But the second one you see, which is in the hospital, is more sexual because Augustine is inviting, unconsciously on her part, Doctor Charcot to pay attention to her. It's her way to express pain, desire with her body. You want to have a public, to be looked at—it's a way to be loved. The third seizure is totally faked. I went to a lot of screenings with neurologists and psychologists who were shocked that the last seizure was faked. They said "she's faking it, she's acting", but of course that's the whole point. I told Soko to simply recreate the first seizure as best as she could, hoping she had some memory in her body. You know, it's very easy to write in your screenplay "seizure", but then you're in front of an actor and you have to figure out how to actually make it work.

Since the very word hysteria denotes a gynocentric "problem", are you trying to address some incipient sexism in the film?

Of course—it's about the way men look at women. Fear and desire, that kind of mix. But even the photographs and the public displays of the hysterics plays into that as well. And the ovarian compressor we show Charcot using on Augustine—that was a very real device. What to me was so incredible was that everything was so sexual and erotic but the doctors absolutely refused to talk about that aspect because it was so taboo. I asked the actors to play the examinations like they were love scenes. And the exhibitions were like peep shows. Women trotted before men as objects of desire. And it wasn't only doctors going—it was men from high Parisian society. It was a show, an entertainment that they attended. And it was always sexual.

Even for Charcot?

Yes, absolutely. Even if Charcot was a great, great doctor, the father of modern neurology, for him it was also sexual, but he was embarrassed by it at the same time. Like many men, he didn't know how to handle the conflicting emotions.

Tell us a little about your background and the logistics behind funding Augustine, especially since you're a first time feature director.

I've been studying cinema at the National Cinema School in France. At first I wanted to be a scriptwriter, but I also directed some short films and realized how much fun I was having. I had gotten interested in the Augustine story and had written the screenplay, but didn't want to direct it, feeling it was too huge, too ambitious for a first time director. But finally I felt that I had to tell this story, that it was impossible to give it to someone else. Surprisingly, funding turned out to be not so hard. The writing process was much harder. I didn't want to just make a biopic on Charcot, so I had to forget everything I had read and just reinvent everything. I think the fact that the film was so different—very different from most contemporary stories that first time French directors tend to make— that the funding actually was easier than it might have otherwise been.

Tell me about your decision to film this digitally. Was it an aesthetic choice or one made for budgetary reasons?

Absolutely only for budgetary reasons. My DP and I were actually really embarrassed that we had to do this with a digital camera. I really wanted to shoot in film, but we had no choice as there was so little money. Our budget was only around four million Euros, which is quite small, though kind of huge for a first feature in France. I also had to film this in a very dark atmosphere, as we had no money for sets, and it just was easier to play everything in the dark. We shot quite a bit in the summer, though some was done in November, and I decided to have the direction of light look like a sunny winter.

Some sources state Soko did the music, but the film lists Jocelyn Pook as the composer.

Oh, the score is definitely by Jocelyn Pook, who is a very famous composer and worked with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut . But I had Soko do the little lullaby over the opening and end credits, which I wanted to sound kind of like Mia Farrow singing the theme of Rosemary's Baby.

The film has several really interesting interstitials with women talking directly to the camera about their mental problems. Were those real patients?

Yes, those were real patients from a mental hospital. For them, they were performing, they were acting a character, but they were talking about symptoms they really had. For them it was a way to have distance with their own traumas. I worked with them like in a documentary, interviewed them and helped prepare them for the shoot. They were in a psychiatric hospital, some were heavily medicated, some were just out of the hospital. We had no script, I just asked them to tell me their story during the interviews, then I wrote them the lines and had them perform in front of the camera.

Merci pour votre temps aujourd'hui. Bonne chance dans le futur.


Source: | Permalink | France United States [Country settings]

News comments (2 comments)

  Sep 13, 2013
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Nicely done! Interesting about the real patients being used for the "interview" segments. I really enjoyed this film and can't wait to see what Winocour does next. That's one question I wish you had asked... "What do you plan on doing next?"

Top reviewer
Top contributor
  Sep 13, 2013
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Excellent interview, Jeff


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