Augustine: What is Hysteria All About?

I got to see Augustine (2012, dir. Anna Winocour) last week during its short run at Film Forum.  Unfortunately, that run ends today, so unless you can get over there within the next hour, you might have to wait for its release onto DVD.

This haunting film exposes one of the darkest periods in medical history: hysteria.  In the late 19th century, doctors used this blanket term to classify nervous disorders in women, for the term “hysteria” comes from the Greek for “uterus.”

Andre Breton and Louis Aragon, in their ironic tribute to the disease, “Le Cinquantenaire de l’hysterie” (Fifty Years of Hysteria), assert, “We surrealists insist on celebrating the 50th anniversary of hysteria, the greatest poetic discovery of the latter 19th century…”  At the time of their writing (1928), the disease “hysteria” was already becoming antiquated, but only a few decades earlier, it was believed that at least a quarter of European women were “hysterical.”

Andre Breton and Louis Aragon’s “Le Cinquantenaire de l’hysterie” featuring photographs of ‘Augustine’

The hysterical woman in the photographs of this surrealist document is known as “Augustine.”  Winocour’s film focuses on this woman, who represents all women oppressed by this medical terminology.  Hysterical women were treated as animals, the emotional sources of their physical pain falling on the deaf ears of their doctors who sought physical solutions to the disease, such as vibrators and other more medieval (read: painful) contraptions meant to “control” the uterus.  But what’s worse, these women were sexually exploited by their doctors in grand displays which brought them to orgasm, in front of large groups of “scientifically-interested” men,  through hypnosis.

Augustine surrounded by doctors at the Salpetrière

Augustine surrounded by doctors at the Salpetrière

The above film still shows Augustine (played by French singer/actress Soko) being prepared for such theatrics.  Below is a painting by Brouillet, of one patient named Blanche, in the throes of orgasm, with Dr. Charcot (also the Augustine’s doctor in the film) on Blanche’s left.  The entirely male members (pun intended) of the medical community were very impressed by these lessons on hysteria, despite their lack of scientific relevance.

André Brouillet, “Une Leçon Clinique à la Salpetrière,” 1887

The power of this film lies in its bold criticism of the dark human impulses which allowed for the popularity of the diagnosis of hysteria, both in the misogyny of the doctors who diagnosed hysteria and in the women who willingly submitted themselves to these erotic performances in the name of science.


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