So, I watched a french film called Augustine, after one of the most famous hysteria patients of Salpêtrière. This particular rendering of the story concentrates on the relationship of the director, Charcot and his new patient, Augustine who, due to her extraordinarily prominent hysterical symptoms becomes the main interest of the medical team and their research into the puzzling disease. Now, if you look at the promotion picture of this movie below, it is needless to add that in this interpretation, Augustine and Charcot's relationship is erotically loaded, and - spoiler alert! - culminates in sexual intercourse. And therein lies the biggest issue that I have with this film.
|old dude on the left is M. Charcot|
Throughout the history of us humans there have been mental disorders and illnesses, and things about our health and behaviour that we have wanted to explain in a way most easily accepted for the social and moral climate of our culture. Hysteria has had a long and eventful history where it has transformed from an illness of a wondering womb to witchcraft to demonic possession to a symptom of repressed sexual fantasies to a variety of mental and physical disorders known nowadays as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS), hypochondria, dissociative disorders and forms of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. And possibly something else too.
My point is that no one has ever known what hysteria actually is, or if it is a thing in the first place. Thus there is a certain artistic freedom in interpreting it especially in a creative medium such as cinema. However, the film in question has gone down the most obvious and simple route by taking the culturally assigned erotic connotations of hysteria and made them the utmost centre of the narrative. A very good parallel could be A Dangerous Method, set in early 20th century Vienna, at the birthplace of psychoanalysis and around the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, a film which I also didn't care too much about because of similar reasons, but also because the plot made mostly no sense at all.
But let's return to Augustine.
I'm not really that fussed about the film giving an extremely superficial and subjective impression about the whole 'hysteria in Salpêtrière' scenario for the general public, although I would much prefer a more profound and multi-layered presentation, as is also the case with Dangerous Method. Why it really bothers me at the moment, is that being a visual person, images tend to stick with me and become extremely valuable pieces of information in my mind. Imagine that I have this box with the word 'hysteria' written on the lid, and inside is everything that I know of the topic. Mostly it is stuff that I've read from historical, philosophical and medical books, journals, essays etc. Since all of this is stored in my brain, it's not in the form of written notes or Word documents but some complex neurological connections. When I think about hysteria I don't see pages of books in my mind; I just know what I've read. However, when I think about hysteria I do see images that I associate with the topic. I see them as I've seen them in the books or the Internet. And most of all, I see images from the film, Augustine - because of its visual accuracy, I suppose, so I guess a round of applause for the production designer is in order.
The reason why I would not like to see these images as part of my hysteria research - as representing hysteria, is that based on my research they seem inaccurate, artificial and biased.
Of course, it is crucial to come across material that contradicts your own concepts about the research topic, and I do appreciate that point greatly.
I just find these images popping in my mind every now and then quite distracting and irritating. Especially since we are not talking about a scientific or in any way authorised study of hysteria, but another artist's interpretation of the subject where a bunch of facts have been turned into historical fiction - as you do in the film industry, I am aware of that.'
So, now I just have to manage with these pieces of irrelevant information in my brain whilst working on my own mission.