In its colloquial use, hysteria describes unmanageable emotional excesses. In the late 19th Century, the term came to refer to what is generally considered today as sexual dysfunction and it seems that half the women in London suffered from it, or so tells us Tanya Wexler’s last film.
In fact, the story is set in London in 1880, a time of electrical, social and medical changes (the telephone was a new device and feminism was expanding swiftly) and when hysteria was the growing women’s epidemic, “the plague of [the] time”. “It stemmed from an overactive uterus and in its most severe forms it demanded drastic measures: institutionalization, surgery even, but in its milder manifestations: nymphomania, frigidity, melancholia, anxiety, it was eminently treatable”.
It therefore depicts the management of hysteria and recounts the story of a young upstart physician with modern views on the latest medical theories that are not well accepted within the Victorian-era London society and who takes modern science very seriously but is too often fired because he fails to gain respect from his fellow doctors who qualify his germ theory to be “poppycock” and according to whom the keys to modern medicine are “a studied air of calm reassurance and a regular bleeding”. Desperate to find a new job, he accepts to work with Dr. Dalrymple, “London’s leading specialist in women’s medicine”. The job consists of manually stimulating the patients’ (mostly “bored housewives” and older ladies) nether parts until catharsis or until they experience the so-called “paroxysm” (quite modern healing methods for such a prudish period) and he proves to be quite handy at it indeed. Soon, his aching wrists are unable to keep up with his immense success, a state that causes him to accidentally stumble upon a device called the “novel electric feather duster” (invented by his friend and benefactor, Edmund St. John-Smythe) that may be able to do the work his muscles and fingers no longer can. It is the mechanical paroyxismater – that instantly becomes a hit – or if you want, in more modern terms, the vibrator. In the subplot also lies a love triangle between Mortimer and Dalrymple’s daughters, the well-mannered and naive Emily and the rebellious and revolutionary Charlotte.
Hysteria is a social satire, a tale of male ignorance and an amusing and lightweight comedy of manners with romantic touches and a happy ending. The subject is original, fun and based on a true story. “Really” (tell us the opening credits). And in the right hands – never better said – it could’ve been a really good and entertaining film. Although it is intended to be funny, it rarely is so. There is indeed a conflict, or a sort of cinematic “frustration” between the innate great potential of the topic and its interpretation and therefore, realization. It is an exploration of women’s passions as well as a celebration of the forward-thinking spirit but as written and directed as it is, it lacks wit and ingenious humor. This is due to its screenplay that insists on some concepts that border the commonplace and cliché, and tends to be redundant, which ends up being tiresome. The story is told in a restrained but tasteful manner, it avoids profanity and explicit material and refrains from being too vulgar. Its risqué and piquant content is contrasted with its context of the proper English society. It is therefore discrete and thus completely in sync with the Victorian discretion.
It is a visually beautiful film, with sumptuous and convincing period detail. The costumes by Nic Ede, production design by Sophie Becher, set decoration by Charlotte Watts and cinematography by Sean Bobbitt are marvelous. The atmosphere is colorful, the tone and pace joyful, up until the creation of the vibrator. The film becomes then slow and reaches its tediousness climax during the boring lecturing act when the focus shifts to Charlotte’s repetitive feminism and ends in a fashion worthy of the mushiest rom-coms. The fun then returns with the closing credits that show us the progress of the vibrator or the “rubby nubby”, “jiggly-wiggly” and “excite-ta-tor” as Edmund St. John-Smythe would call it. The music is somewhat discrete, almost absent and not stimulating enough. It is historically quite accurate; as a matter of fact, manual genital massage of women had been a medical remedy since Antiquity and hysteria was a recognized malady until the American Psychiatric Association suspended this term in 1952. Joseph Mortimer Granville filed the first patent for an electromechanical vibrator called Granville’s hammer in about 1883. However, he did not use it in the treatment of hysteria but, ironically enough, to treat muscular disorders. Other physicians did.
There is some good acting in Hysteria but, unfortunately, it is uneven. Rupert Everett as Edmund St. John-Smythe, the eccentric benefactor fascinated with the invention of gadgets or as Mortimer Granville would describe him “bachelor, benefactor, miserable student, sometime drunkard, full-time sexual deviant and supreme waster of time and money, especially if it has anything to do with the science of electricity” is brilliant, show-stealing and brings comedy to the film. Hugh Dancy as Mortimer Granville is more Hugh Grant-like than anything else. As the upright and “once brilliant student, most recently a visionary doctor to the poor and now hand maid to anxious middle-aged women” (torn between settling for conformity and success and daring to follow his convictions and his dreams), his performance is overdone, over exaggerated in every aspect (mostly his facial expressions) and insipid. Felicity Jones is “Ok” in her role as Emily, Dr. Dalrymple’s younger daughter, the “angel of the house” or the “epitome of English virtue and womanliness” who studies phrenology, plays the piano and reads English philosophers. Jonathan Pryce as Dr. Dalrymple is his usual self and we find it hard to imagine that he is so clueless and unaware that his patients suffer from sexual frustration. Then again, he is a “charlatan with no more idea of a woman’s wants or needs than of the moon’s atmosphere” who lives in the prudish and rigid Victorian society, in a time of ignorance about women when it was impossible to think that women could enjoy sexual pleasure; it was a sexist mindset that denied women so many rights and men were oblivious to conjugal needs. He and Emily are the epitome of the Victorian society. Finally, Maggie Gyllenhaal is good as Charlotte Dalrymple, the doctor’s older scandalous, liberated, headstrong, philanthropic, “socialist” daughter and the progressive feminist, who takes a stand against her father’s ways, runs a settlement home in East End and has her own definition of hysteria. Her character links the invention of the vibrator with the early days of the women’s liberation movement. Maggie Gyllenhaal is not very convincing because she overplays it. In general, the performances are encouraged to be over-the-top but a certain reticence in the performances remains.
All in all it is quite an enjoyable History lesson on sexuality and gender. It is a charming and moving film with good vibrations that raises questions that still absorb us today such as sexual attitudes and the ways to lead a truly satisfying life.
Production: Chimera Films LLC, Delux Production, Canal +, CinéCinéma, arte France Cinéma, Tatfilm, Film Fund Luxembourg, The UK Film & TV Production Company PLC, Forthcoming Productions, by alternative pictures, Informant Media, Beachfront Films, Silver Reel, WDR/Arte, Lankn Media (UK- France- Germany- Luxembourg 2011). Executive producers: Kenneth Atchity, Claudia Blümhuber, Eric Brenner, Florian Dargel, Stephen Dyer, Leo Joseph, Nathalie Jospeh, Hakan Kousetta, Mark Kress, Sandra Siegal and Michael A. Simpson. Producers: Tracey Becker, Judy Cairo and Sarah Curtis. Co-producers: Bob Bellion, Jimmy de Brabant, Anouk Nora and Christine Ruppet. Assistant producer: Frances Patterson. Line producer: Paul Sarony. Director: Tanya Wexler. Screenplay: Stephen Dyer, Jonah Lisa Dyer and Howard Gensler. Photography: Sean Bobbitt B.S.C. Music: Gast Waltzing. Production design: Sophie Becher. Set decoration: Charlotte Waits. Costume design: Nic Ede. Editing: Billy A. Campbell and Jon Gregory A.C.E.
Cast: Hugh Dancy (Mortimer Granville), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Charlotte Dalrymple), Jonathan Pryce (Dr. Robert Dalrymple), Felicity Jones (Emily Dalrymple), Rupert Everett (Edmund St. John-Smythe), Ashley Jensen (Fannie), Sheridan Smith (Molly), Jemma Jones (Lady St. John-Smythe), Malcom Rennie (Lord St. John-Smythe), Kimm Criswell (Mrs. Castellari), Georgie Glenn (Mrs. Parsons).
Color – 100 min. Premiere: 15-IX-2011 (Toronto International Film Festival).