By Alice Shindelar
Hysteria, UK / France / Germany / Luxembourg, 2011
Directed by Tanya Wexler
Hysteria, directed by Tanya Wexler, serves up a particularly dark period of feminine history and covers it in doilies and pink sparkles, until macabre 19th-century England coughs out an unlikely romantic comedy with yet another clumsy male lead and a punchy female love interest. Worse yet, it’s not clear this film is a romantic comedy until the third act.
When I caught wind that a film with Maggie Gyllenhaal about the invention of vibrators would soon be released, Hysteria jumped to the top of my list of movies to see. The story follows Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a progressive young doctor who insists on washing his hands before operating on a patient, a revolutionary move at the time. Out of work, Granville applies for a job at the top clinic in London serving women with hysteria. His employer, Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) informs him “half the women in London are effected.” For close to 2,000 years of European history, hysteria referred to a catch-all medical condition thought to cause everything from depression, to headaches, to a disinterest in copulation with one’s 30-second husband, a.k.a. any woman who wasn’t happy with a life of childbirth, corsets, and overall slavery to men.
When Granville takes his new position, Dalrymple teaches him his famous technique for the cure of hysteria: manual stimulation of women’s “most sensitive parts.” Granville quickly finds that he’s not up to the physical demands of the job, and takes to wearing a wrist brace. As is historically accurate, Granville and a colleague of his, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), bring in their new invention, the vibrator, to get the job done. One of the most satisfying scenes in the film occurs when they first test their new invention on Molly (Sheridan Smith), an eager young prostitute who scoffs at their concerns that she won’t be able to handle such extreme stimulation. How did those who push out up to 10 pounds (or more) of human flesh through their genitalia ever get labeled the delicate sex?
But wait! Don’t forget there’s a romance, too. Maggie Gyllanhaal plays Charlotte Dalrymple, the doctor’s daughter. Charlotte speed-talks her way through every scene heralding the onset of woman’s liberation. Though never failing to be a riot to watch, Gyllenhaal’s character looses reliability in her extreme lack of flaws, just another manic pixie dream girl used to represent what could be a more dimensional female character.
Despite the lack of nudity, due to references to orgasm (referred to as “paroxysm” throughout the film), and the comical renditions of the female response to it (i.e. operatic singing and kittenish peeps), Hysteria still got stamped with an R-rating. We all know how damaging female pleasure can be to kids, after all. I know I’d rather my niece saw someone’s limbs get ripped off.
The most satisfying part of the movie for me came at the end, when a visual timeline of vibrators scrolled alongside the credits. We’ve come a long way since that first feather duster. Hysteria is well worth the watch and will be a pleasantly shocking ride for some, but if you really want to know what this diagnosis did to women, check out Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper.
Alice Shindelar writes and lives in Brooklyn, NY. Contact the Author: contributor@MoviesIDidntGet.com