Reel Deal Goes to the Movies: “Augustine” at the DFT (join the discussion!)

June 24, 2013 8 Comments


On Sunday, July 21 the Reel Deal hosted a blockbuster event:  an opportunity to screen and discuss Alice Winokur’s compelling “Augustine” at the Detroit Film Theater.  A compelling discussion followed at the MacaBee’s Building (in the heart of Wayne State’s Philosophy department, thanks to Bruce Russell, philosophical cinephile) which allowed us to comment upon and explore the complexities of this provocative film, overlooking the  splendid skyline of Detroit (with wine and popcorn).

Augustine is the fictionalized account of a young “hysteric” maid treated by the (in)famous Jean Marie Charcot, founder of neurology.  In dark hues and with minimal dialogue, it offers a tonal exploration of the complicated relationship between an iconic figure and the “specimens” he relied upon to market his theories.  The film refuses to vilify Charcot and offers a nuanced exploration of the relationship that evolved between them.  Augustine is protrayed without victimization or elevation to sainthood.

The lively discussion after the film began with each participant providing critique which ranged from sheer admiration to outright disapproval.  Comments about the film’s style (including the use of darkness to create the tone)  and references to the  similarities and differences to ‘ A Dangerous Method” provided a lively exchange.  Did the sexual encounter between Augustine and Charcot appear ‘out of the blue”  or was it foreshadowed in scenes that preceded?  There were questions and explanations of some of the historical facts documented about Charcot.  Was the film an attempt to provide a documentary-like experience?  Is it permissible to use “real” stories to  set a mood?   When does it approach explotation?  What WAS the point of this film?  Was the hand of the female director apparent?  Was this a good film or a dud?  Entertaining or just creepy and annoying?

There is great value in joining a discussion about a film immediately following a viewing.  The Reel Deal Goes to the Movies offers an opportunity to prcess reactions and ideas and to incorporate observations from others which can only enrich the experience.

Our nest event is scheduled for July 27th at 2pm at the Redford Theater.  Please join us for a chance to screen Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Notorious” with an opportunity to discuss it right in the theater!

See you at the movies!

Jolyn Wagner




DFT Presents, Reel Deal Goes to the Movies
8 Comments to “Reel Deal Goes to the Movies: “Augustine” at the DFT (join the discussion!)”
  1. Norm says:

    I am looking forward to it! Will there be prizes for the best 19th-century hysterical imitation?

  2. Aaron says:

    I was reticent to share this thought at the group discussion, but I felt that Charcot was either going to molest or rape Augustine. I was not expecting that exchange to be even remotely consensual.

    The way he was looking upon her leading up to the point of creeping into her room at midnight, Augustine was certainly portrayed as an object of lust for Charcot. Coupled with that, the depiction of Augustine as an object if study, my gut instinct was that they were going to have asexual encounter, but that it would be anything but consensual.

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    Some of us were wondering what that device was that had screws on it and whose use caused pain to Augustine. I saw a drawing of it online. It’s called an “ovarian compressor.” Charcot thought that certain kinds of hysteria were caused by an imbalance in the reproductive system. Applying pressure to the ovaries was supposed to help restore balance.

  4. Not a perfect movie by any means, but I really liked the tone of the film: uber melodramatic darkness which captured the darkness lurking behind/beneath the hysterical symptoms and the lack of understanding by clinicians of what the heck was going on. I have to put Charcot’s efforts into historical perspective: it was a big step forward from burning the girls as witches, but so primitive (from such “learned” men!).
    Did you notice all the “knowing” looks that passed between the characters? (remember the look that Madame Charcot shot towards her hubby at the end of the film?) If looks could kill………

  5. Maria Christoff says:

    In refusing to offer a “back-story” in general, and to Augustine’s character in particular, the film declined to lend itself to a typical post-Freudian discussion of the (presumably childhood) “causes” of Augustine’s illness. In this way, it is appropriately historically situated. Charcot’s career was not only pre-Freudian, but it also set the stage for Freud’s career as a psychiatrist. After all, it was Freud’s visit to the Salpetriere under Charcot’s tutelage which sparked his interest in hysteria, and the rest is history.

    However, the film offered itself as a rich ground for the exploration of Lacan’s concept of “the gaze” (see above comments), and to critical discussion of the male gaze in particular. Angles of the camera over women’s bodies from the doctors’ perspectives, still images mimicking actual photographs of Charcot’s patients, reproductions of Charcot’s drawings, and certainly not least the gaze of Soko in the part of Augustine. A poignant example is Augustine’s final refusal to allow her gaze to follow the mirror to allow herself to be hypnotized. In this way, the film echoes G Didi-Huberman’s 2004 book “Invention of Hysteria.”

    It was fun for me to view this film as a prequel to “A Dangerous Method,” informed by Henri Ellenberger’s essay “Psychiatry and its unknown History” (in “Beyond the Unconscious”), in which important relationships between physicians and their female patients are explored, and in which Ellenberger suggests that the roots of psychiatry are in fact the result of a co-creative process between male doctors and their female patients.

    This certainly does not resolve ethical issues presented in both films, or preclude a discussion of exploitation, but it is an interesting lens through which to view history.

    So when can I expect a movie about Bertha Pappenheim? Thanks so much, Reel Deal!

  6. Bruce Russell says:

    I read a review of “Augustine” by Godfrey Cheshire on the Roger Ebert site that I liked. Cheshire argues that the film focuses too narrowly on the romance between Charcot and Augustine. He writes, “we never get a sense of what he makes of her case. Not once does he tell anyone what he thinks her problem is or how it might be cured.” Cheshire contrasts this film with “A Dangerous Method” which he says has greater intellectual depth because it does not focus exclusively on the erotic relation between Jung and Sabina Spielrein. I’m not often found quoting Lacan, but Cheshire says the following about Augustine, “…her trajectory encapsulates Jacques Lacan’s remark that ‘A hysteric is a slave looking for a master to rule over.'” Quite apt!

    Why doesn’t Augustine talk as much as Spielrein does in “A Dangerous Method”? Augustine is uneducated and very young while Spielrein was well educated and became a co-investigator with Jung.

    I think the correct definition of “exploitation” is: taking unfair advantage of someone who is vulnerable. That’s what pimps sometimes do to their prostitutes. I think Charcot exploits Augustine by treating her as a circus side-show attraction, displaying her hysterical, and orgasmic, gyrations before his voyeuristic colleagues. Though Jung exploits Spielrein, if we compare Charcot and Jung as presented in the respective films, there is more exploitation by Charcot than Jung. Also, as presented in the films, there is more love by Jung for Spielrein than by Charcot for Augustine, though the amount of lust each shows for the respective women might be equivalent!

  7. Maria Christoff says:

    Bruce Russell, your question “Why doesn’t Augustine talk as much as Spielrein does in “A Dangerous Method”?” is very compelling.
    I do not know the historical Augustine’s age when she entered the Salpetriere, but Spielrein was 19 years old when she was admitted to the Burgholzi. They were both teenagers.
    I agree that a major reason Spielrein was given a voice, while Augustine less so, in these films, and in history, is the result of Spielrein hailing from a wealthy family, with a multilingual upbringing, and a superb education. Not knowing as much about Augustine’s history, but based on the fact that she was a servant, it seems fair to suppose she was poor.
    Still, I think an equally important factor is that Jung and Bleuler were treating Spielrein’s hysteria with Freud’s “Talking Cure.” They had “Studies in Hysteria” and “Three Essays” in their treatment arsenal, and they were determined to allow Spielrein to talk out the childhood causes of her illness.
    No such method had yet been invented when Augustine was being treated for hysteria.
    In this way, I think the film Augustine accurately portrayed an absence of verbalization in the treatment of hysteria, like Jolyn Welsh Wagner writes, it was “primitive.”
    Additionally, at the Burgholzi, Jung was training under a series of predecessors (Bleuler and Forel) that paid particular attention to treating their patients humanely, and with dignity.
    I don’t know whether the historical Charcot had sexual relations with his patient Augustine. It is also a subject of debate whether the historical Jung and Spielrein consummated their love for each other. Regardless, Jung definitely broke a professional code of ethics by becoming romantically involved with a patient (exploited her), and it caused her a great deal of harm, as evidenced by her journals.
    They were indeed co-creators of many of Jung’s most famous theories, especially the Anima. However, history does not adequately recognize Spielrein’s part. As an hysteric, (perhaps as a woman?), like Augustine, she is silenced.

  8. Bruce Russell says:

    Maria, I take almost all the points you make. When I discussed “A Dangerous Method” at a meeting of Reel Deal, I argued that Jung did not exploit Sabina by having sexual relations with her. He did in other ways: by throwing her under the bus to Freud (calling her hysterical, obsessed with him, etc), by denying that she was his patient because she had not been paying him, and by treating her coldly when she came back to see him after he had talked to her mother (all this according to the film). Not to mention that he did not leave his wife for her. Later, according to the film, he regretted that.

    Many people know my general argument about professional codes and their violations. In the case of psychiatry, the purpose of the code is to prevent exploitation and to insure that analysts act in the best interests of their patients. There are possible cases where consensual sexual and romantic relations would not violate the purpose of the code, which is to prevent exploitation and further the best interests of the patient. In those cases it would seem self-defeating to adhere to the code. Whether Jung’s relation to Sabina fits the bill, is an historical question. Whether any particular case meets those conditions is an empirical question. The way I see it, whether there are possible conditions under which a violation of the code is morally permissible, and not exploitative, is a philosophical question. It does not follow that any violation of the code involves exploitation.

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