Long before it became a favorite pejorative of intolerant husbands, “hysteria” was filling 19th-century French sanatoriums with females suffering from fits, outbursts and other assorted rebellions of the body. One such working-class girl, Augustine (Soko), is interned in a prisonlike hospital due to a seizure-induced partial paralysis. There, she’s studied by pioneering neurologist Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), who presides over his wards like a brooding god. Looking to legitimize his erstwhile fringe practice, Charcot employs Augustine as a model in public demonstrations, hypnotizing her and inducing wild masturbatory fits. (Cue postorgasm applause from leering cigar chompers.) But as their relationship develops, power begins to shift from the repressed physician to the emboldened patient.
Not least because Sigmund Freud was an admiring student of the real-life Charcot, Alice Winocour’s debut feature plays like a gothic prequel to David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, one in which human flesh is viewed as both horrific and erotic terrain. While the good doctor’s demos are portrayed as harrowingly pornographic spectacles, it’s the private interactions—the insertion of a needle, the force-feeding of soup—that prove most prurient. With one paw paralyzed and her milky skin offset by thick black pigtails, Soko is a fetish object in motion, albeit one that marvelously evolves from exploited victim to self-possessed woman—a protofeminist in both body and mind.
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