Alrighty then! This movie is about Charcot, who was a teacher of Freud and William James, operating in the 19th century, and one of his most famous patients. So at the time, some women had a bunch of mysterious ailments that had no discernible physical cause, and these were lumped under the name "hysterical" ailments. The word "hysterical" specifically refers to the womb (as in "hysterectomy") and thus can be seen as defining the patient's womanhood as precisely part of the problem, which is why many find the term a bit offensive. It was Freud who delved into these issues in his early cases (the Cronenberg movie A Dangerous Method is partly about this) and came to the conclusion that they were largely symptoms that emerged due to women's sexual oppression during the Victorian age. So this movie operates as us taking a look back at a more ignorant time, through the lens of our modern understanding. If we have a modern understanding, which is a whole other question.
The opening image is of a crab in hot water trying to crawl out of its pot. Make of that what you will. We then join our heroine Augustine as a servant, who starts to have difficulty making her hand work to serve the soup, and finally collapses in a fit. You'll note that no one of her upper class diners will help her, except the matron, who finally just empties a jug of water on her face. Thanks for the help! Soon her left side is paralyzed, not even reacting to a pin struck through it, and her left eye closed. She is brought to a hospital, and told that she will be staying. Soon we see the women brought before the big visiting doctor, Charcot, and we hear one of them ask the other "Did he touch you?"
Soon she becomes Charcot's main focus, and he brings her in front of the Academy, which is made up of all male doctors. At this time, we are told, Charcot's work is considered silly and circumspect. He hypnotizes Augustine in front of all the doctors, and she falls into a fit in which she writhes, moans, and clutches at her crotch. The movie makes clear that the observing doctors find this pretty hot. This is considered a wild advance for science, and Charcot's career starts taking off. We hear a newspaper account that describes what a sexy babe Augustine is and assumes that Charcot's interest and "advances" with her must be sexual. Charcot's wife becomes a constantly-present sideline character, kept on the outside but suspicious of what her husband is really getting up to... but of course it's not her place to ask, or know.
SPOILERS > > >
Treatment continues. Her body can go stiff as a board and be suspended between two chairs. We learn that she (at 17 or so) has not yet had her first period. She sees a chicken with its head cut off still writhing and fluttering, not unlike she does, and passes out. Soon she has her first period. Through all of this, Charcot, who is handsome and giving/withholding by turns, is driving her a little crazy. He'll pay a lot of attention, and be tender, then suddenly turn businesslike and cold. We can tell that Augustine is starting to develop feelings when she looks at one of his medical texts and says "there's not a lot of love in your books." Soon he is starting to be, um, not un-responsive to her vulnerabilities. Let's put it that way. Then he takes a machine and uses it to take her virginity. All the while, she is appearing before the academy and having fits on command and his career is taking off and she may or may not be little more than a trained monkey.
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That's all I'm going to tell you. The movie ends in a such a way that (my interpretation) shows Augustine as taking control of herself, but making a small ending gesture of mercy and liberation that shows it's not all hard feelings for the dim-witted doctor. My friends saw this before I did, and were impressed that it is truly a feminist film but without feeling an overbearing message or that events had to be shoehorned into a tendentious narrative, and I think they're right. The movie shows Augustine as sexually repressed, and sexually ignorant. This highlights the role of the patriarchal society--which is described here, not just assumed--and how it directly leads to the suffering of women. Charcot is critically examined, but the point of the movie doesn't hate him, and doesn't blame him for doing what he could within the understanding of his age. It does fault him for being a bit obtuse and cruel as a person, and factors these elements into its judgement. Furthermore, Augustine gains her independence without having to destroy the doctor, and in fact giving him a big hand up, even as she ensures that it will be her last. Suffice to say, much more thoughtful and even-handed a feminist film than we'd get from Jane Campion.
However, quite intellectual. A film for the mind, that will not exactly be an emotional roller coaster. It is very good, and very well written, acted and directed, but most of this occurs to you afterward, as you gradually digest it. This is not a criticism, it's praise, actually, but still, I suspect that most people are going to come away from this finding it a bit lacking in movie satisfaction. It's low-key, it's subtle, its virtues are those of the mind. Which makes me glad films like this exist and are still being made, but... I didn't walk out of it thinking how great it was. It was only over the course of the following week that I really began to appreciate it. Luckily, moviegoers looking for Fast and Furious 6 are unlikely to wander into this by mistake.
If you have a prior history or knowledge of the subject, or you just appreciate well-made subtle and talky dramas.