I’d like to note that this period/area of history is not my particular forte (I’m more well-versed in the history of cinema, fashion and visual art of the 20th century) so I can’t necessarily tell which bits are accurate and which aren’t. And this is more of a ramble than a review.
When I first heard about the movie Hysteria I was immediately intrigued – a movie about the invention of the vibrator? Starring one of my favourites, Maggie Gyllenhaal? Colour me yes! Since then my anticipation has grown and I’m so happy that I have a local cinema that will bring interesting films like this one to the city I live in so I could see it on the big screen. The film, directed by Tanya Wexler, is a not-entirely-fictionalised account of the invention of the vibrator, though looks a little more at the surrounding issues and centres on Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who is frustrated with the archaic medical establishment he has to work in. He ends up working for a Dr Dalrypmle, and helps him treat his patients: generally upper (and possibly middle) class women who are suffering from ‘hysteria‘. The ‘pelvic massages’ Mortimer has to perform prove to be too taxing and he develops a bad hand cramp – this is where his gadget-minded friend (played by Rupert Everett) steps in and together they essentially invent the first vibrator.
Whilst the finer details are not always historically accurate the essential truth is there: it was invented to treat ‘female hysteria’ (a diagnosis which the audience learns, disturbingly, at the end of the film only ceased in 1952…and an accusation and assumption that I think is still often thrown around to silence women today.) It’s the exact kind of bawdy, nudge nudge wink wink British humour that I love – it’s sometimes very obvious but that isn’t necessarily always a bad thing in my books. The characters are over the top, at times, and there is an air of exaggeration to the whole film but it didn’t hinder my enjoyment. (I tend to like things a little on the hammy side, anyway.)
That at one point it essentially takes three men (wearing goggles, as seen above), one wielding the newly invented vibrator (though without this name) to give one woman a paroxysm (orgasm) perhaps speaks to the underlying idea of men’s ignorance and disbelief that anything but penetration from a man could bring a woman pleasure. And their complete ignorance, in fact, that what they were doing was sexual and not just merely a medical procedure. If it weren’t for Charlotte’s (Gyllenhaal) comments about the true nature of the procedure (ie she tells Mortimer that it is about sexual pleasure for the women) I wonder if this would seem more like using female sexuality just for the laughs, so to speak. Not, of course, that sex can’t be funny (but perhaps this is something to ponder at length, rather than in this quickly put together post.)
Of course, the subject of female hysteria is not inherently funny. In fact, the film hints at the mortifying consequences, such as institutionalisation and surgical hysterectomy in ‘extreme cases’ (as Charlotte is threatened with both of these herself but Mortimer comes to her rescue, which is slightly infuriating – that she is such a strong character but still needs to be ‘saved’ by a man because of the time? Or because of the conventions of romantic comedy? Of course this can also be seen that Mortimer finally realises that Charlotte was right all along and female hysteria is bunk and not simply the hero riding in to save the day).* Which is why the overall levity of the film was so important to me – it doesn’t make light of the situations that women would have faced but uses humour to highlight them. Comedy and comedians has been under scrutiny recently and I think it’s important to note that humour, whilst we can be critical of it and talk about things that many people (myself included) believe shouldn’t be joked about, can be a powerful tool to talk about important issues. Whilst Hysteria maybe doesn’t quite make it to groundbreaking territory and I felt like it could have done more with the subject, pushed the boundaries a little more, it’s still a breath of mainly fresh air in the genre of romantic comedy/historical comedy, which can be very stagnant and samey. Not that it doesn’t stick to certain rom-com conventions such as hate, or disagreement, turning to love, for one. Perhaps the film plays it a little safe in some respects but I don’t think it pretends to be anything other than a historical romantic comedy.
I always enjoy Maggie Gyllenhall onscreen and she tends to pick very interesting roles. She dons a British accent for this and she does a very good job (a bad accent will often just distract me from an entire film, no matter how great it is otherwise). She plays the passionate Charlotte extremely well. Oh, and Rupert Everett as the electricity obsessed aristocrat, Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, is very funny and quite perfect in this role.
*I don’t know if this actually happened as I’ve only read the wikipedia article on female hysteria at present – I didn’t feel much like being enraged at past medical practices nor to think of any current parallels