'Hysteria' Turns the Vibrator Into Inspirational Cinema

Tanya Wexler's film about the sex toy as medical device works as drama, comedy, and feminist critique.

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Hysteria, the late-19th century-set film about the invention of the vibrator, in limited release now, could've gone in many different directions. It's got the makings of a scatological, Victorian-era sex comedy. It could have been a sincere look at a significant historical moment. Or it could have worked as a serious costume drama or a piece of feminist cinema.

Remarkably, filmmaker Tanya Wexler has made a movie that manages to be all that at once, wrapped in an appealing populist package. An assemblage of shifting tones and complex ideas, Hysteria is a warmhearted film about a risqué subject. Wexler and screenwriters Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer mainstream things without sanitizing them, reconstituting taboo fodder as the stuff of inspirational cinema.

Wexler uses the lighthearted baseline to get at a deeper and more substantial look at the currents of change sweeping through Britain at the time.

Hugh Dancy stars as headstrong London doctor Mortimer Granville, whose determined attitude and modern notions about germs get him fired from a clinic. Soon after, he's offered employment by Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) at a practice that caters to high-society women experiencing various forms of "hysteria," which is basically any overt emotional behavior. The "treatment" they're offered, to put it delicately, leaves Granville suffering crippling hand cramps and desperate for an alternative method.

Wexler toys with the amusingly racy set-up, offering funny scenes of patients experiencing what were known as "hysterical paroxysms." The movie has its share of tongue-in-cheek, farcical visual humor, with copulating animals serving as a running motif. At the same time, much is made of the prudish cluelessness of Granville and Dalrymple when it comes to the female body. The doctors dryly and matter-of-factly discuss the medical ramifications of helping women have orgasms. Their delighted patients sing arias and experience other forms of unrestrained joy when their treatments conclude.

The satire places the film squarely within the tradition of Oscar Wilde and other witty late-19th-century playwrights. The movie is so rooted in Wilde's tradition, in fact, that it gives some of its meatiest comic lines to Rupert Everett, playing Granville's best friend and benefactor. Everett, of course, has starred in more than one cinematic adaptation of the master's plays and is set to direct The Happy Prince.

In classic Wildean fashion, though, Wexler uses that lighthearted baseline to get at a deeper and more substantial look at the currents of change sweeping through Britain at the time. In that vein, the real heart of the movie can be found outside the doctors' office. It's embodied by Dalrymple's eldest daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a headstrong and rebellious woman who has tossed away her wealthy, privileged background to become a full-time worker/resident at a settlement house.

Charlotte stalks the edges of the central narrative, emerging at inopportune times and loudly, forcibly demanding that her father and his underling see what's really going on outside their front doors. As sharply played by Gyllenhaal, Charlotte slices through the polished air enveloping the clinic to highlight the absurd, backward wastefulness of the doctors' pursuit. A powerful disruptive force, empathetic and admirable, she's an effective surrogate for the audience, expressing our incredulousness at the overwhelming ignorance on display inside the medical clinic.

In a sense, Charlotte represents the dawning of a new century, one that would bring extraordinary advances in medical science and a powerful, meaningful social movement that achieved sweeping gains in equality for women. She is thoroughly ahead of her time and made into a social outcast for it, but the movie derives much of its emotional resonance from its portrait of her society taking heed and gradually catching up.

Some critics have derided the movie for including Charlotte's story, with the Christian Science Monitor's Peter Rainier writing that, "It's as if they felt they had to work all that socially conscious stuff into the mix in order to justify the risqué humor." But making Hysteria just a libidinous film about 19th-century women and their orgasms would be the easiest and least effective possible route for Wexler.

Instead, the filmmaker deserves ample credit for fashioning her eye-catching conceit, centered on sexual taboos, into a rich and meaningful social chronicle. And given that women's health issues are still a major part of the public conversation, as proven by this year's Sandra Fluke/contraceptives flap, it's a timely one, too.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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