The film Hysteria came and went with very little hype, despite having a well-respected Maggie Gyllenhaal and zany Rupert Everett and being directed by a woman. Perhaps it is the subject matter of the film that proved problematic to individuals considering that it is essentially a film centered almost entirely around the invention of the vibrator. A film with such subject matter runs a risk of being blatantly exploitative and degrading to women in its commentary, and while director Tanya Wexler certainly displays the problematic, misogynist patriarchal place of science and medicine circa 1890, this period piece is anything but exploitative. Sure it uses a great degree of comedy to deal with discussing women's sexual awakening, but this comedy rarely, if ever, envelops the greater statement on a great moment right at the cusp of the push for women's enfranchisement. It is a film that certainly suffers from attempting to coalesce a few too many stories and ideas into a small narrative window and can at times seem a bit trite, but I cannot help but praise its existence, firstly as a film of considerable quality by a relatively unestablished female director and secondly for handling such a important topic in women's health with some degree of respect. It would be easy to read this film as a male dominated fantasy about what they believed to be their role in women's sexual awakening, but it is quite clear from the onset that the male figures in this film are set up only to undermine and mock, something done both within the writing and often with some very clever cinematography. I would be cautious to call this one of the better films of 2011, particularly considering the amount of great work that did come out that year, however, Hysteria is a fantastically funny, surprisingly pertinent and incredibly enjoyable work. I only hope it does not spiral into obscurity for the sake of its great message and for some absolutely hilarious acting on the part of Rupert Everett.
The film, while focused on the invention of the vibrator and the debunking of the term hysteria, nonetheless, fixates on the doctor credited with the devices invention Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) an up and coming young doctor who finds trouble maintaining a job in any hospital for his, then absurd, theory that germs were causing a serious hazard to medical safety and practice. Feeling quite dejected, despite the assurance of his friend and aristocrat Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett) that he is more than welcome to have money from him to pursue whatever medical research he desires. On a last chance shot, Mortimer approaches a clinic for women's health run by Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who is known for a particular "technique" that allows women to receive satisfaction and relief form hysterical build up, of course it is quite clear that all that is occurring is that of bringing the women to orgasm, something they have not had the pleasure of experiencing within their marriages. All the while, Dr. Dalrymple plans on passing the practice on to Mortimer, along with his prodigal daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) who studies various social sciences, as well as the now outdated science of phrenology. All seems idyllic in Mortimer's new life, aside from serious hand cramps, until he takes an unsuspected liking to Dr. Dalrymple's less conventional daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall) who runs a free health clinic/daycare/community outreach center, all while continually advocating for women's right, most notably voting rights. After word comes to Dr. Dalrymple that he has been aiding Charlotte, as well as failing to relief his clients, Dr. Dalrymple demands that he leave his practice. Dejected, Mortimer returns to Edmund in shambles, only to discover that the free-floating aristocrat has been toying with electrical devices, causing Mortimer to come up with a crazy notion to create a device specifically for dealing with hysteria. This proves a rousing success, and after some problematic run-ins with the law, centered around Charlotte's refusal to adhere to gender norms, the two find success in the profits from the device called a "Jolly Molly" named after a rather "affectionate" female character in the film, Charlotte and Mortimer are then engaged happily as they undertake a task of creating a better community outreach program within their community.
This film, as I noted earlier could have been incredibly exploitative and problematic in its portrayal of the invention of the vibrator. I say this because it could have been a far more sexualized film, one in which the male gaze would come into play and the work would play into fantastical pleasures of sexual acts. This is not the case with hysteria, in fact, there is no nudity whatsoever, and the moments of "treating" hysteria are done with a perfect combination of humor and gravitas as to assure that they are not exploitative. Furthermore, the film makes certain that the doctors depicted are neither experts in women's sexual organs, nor adapt at performing this treatment outside of a medical setting, suggesting that it is not an act entirely to be credited to male egos. Instead, the film very much places the invention with a context of larger women's rights issues, in this case their awakening to disillusionment and overall dissatisfaction with their sexual lives. Furthermore, the women depicted in the film are of a diverse setting, of course all white though since the film is set in 1890 England, once again not idealizing the women's body as a means of sexual conquest for the male figures in the film, certainly not for Mortimer who takes his job quite seriously and seems to see it as a rewarding act to help women with what he believes to be a serious medical condition. Finally, and perhaps the best argument for why this is a film detached from exploitation, is the amount of time devoted to the character of Charlotte and her quest for equality in terms far larger than intimacy. She is an activist through and through, particularly in her concern for helping lower class individuals, as well as her demand for suffrage. If the film were to be exploitative she would not have been considered even passingly, instead, Wexler centers her in the narrative, helping to explain some of the disjointed issues in the overarching narrative.
Key Scene: The side panels during the credits are particularly fun and help to ground the historical narrative nature of the work.
This is a fun and informative movie that is frankly hard not to enjoy. While it is not a must own work, it is well worth renting.