The debut feature for writer-director Alice Winocour, "Augustine" features a bracing and powerful performance by the young performer known as Soko. Now playing in Los Angeles, the film is set in 19th century France, its story based on the ethically and emotionally complicated relationship that develops between Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (played by Vincent Lindon) and the young woman (Soko) prone to fits of what was then called "hysteria" who would become his star patient.
The scenes of Augustine having fits -- which were created in part by having Soko yanked about by unseen ropes and cables and in part by her yoga-induced flexibility -- are disconcerting to watch. And they affected the young actress even after filming had stopped.
"You might think it's just a movie, but your body lived it," she said during a recent interview in Los Angeles, her upbeat boisterousness in sharp contrast to her on-screen role. "And it's super-violent and your body is freaking out: 'Why are you doing that to me?' And you go back to normal life, and your body still knows how to do it."
The physical demands of the role were made even more so by the fact that Augustine rarely speaks, leaving Soko with only her body to communicate.
"She wants to film what was in my head more than what I had to say," said Soko of working with Winocour. "She wanted to film my whole inside world. So I had to think about what was happening to me nonstop. Because I'm very talkative in real life, that was actually amazing for me to play something when everything goes through my eyes and my body and my discomfort, being able to read me without talking about my emotions."
Previously nominated for a French Cesar award for her role in 2009's "In the Beginning," Soko, 27, was born Stephanie Sokolinski in Bordeaux and has more recently split her time between Los Angeles and Paris. Also a singer, after receiving some notoriety for her quirk-pop song of jealousy and love, "I'll Kill Her," she is preparing for the U.S. release of her debut album, "I Thought I Was an Alien," while also finishing work on her second, "My Dreams Dictate My Reality."
"Augustine" is perhaps most immediately compared to David Cronenberg's 2011 film "A Dangerous Method," in which Michael Fassbender's Carl Jung found himself in thrall to his patient Sabina Spielrein, played by Kiera Knightley. (That film was coming out as "Augustine" was preparing to shoot.) And with music by Jocelyn Pook, who also worked on Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," it might be possible to think of "Augustine" as part of a group of films that explores sex through the mind rather than solely through the body.
"Every scene she wanted to shoot like a sex scene, building sexual tension," said Soko of how Winocour created the film's intensely sensual world.
"She didn't want me to do any research," Soko added. "She was like, 'Everything you need to know is in the script. We're not doing a historical re-creation. We're making a love story. We're talking about sex, and we're talking about love and how you turn from object to being the master of the man who is totally dominating you.'
"She asked, 'Please don't read anything; Augustine doesn't know anything about her condition, she didn't know anything about hysteria.' She said, 'I don't want you to do a historical movie. Those are boring.'"