I once had a conversation with a co-worker about the importance of understanding the literal meaning of the words we commonly use. For example disaster means bad stars harkening back to the belief that the stars ruled our lives Thursday being a day dedicated to the Norse god of thunder, Thor. I then came to the origins of the word ‘Hysteria’ mentioning that the literal denotation is a mental disorder steaming from the uterus. She was disbelieving until I pointed out the root ‘Hyste’ refers to the uterus as in hysterectomy referring to its surgical removal. From our modern perspective this is as absurd as trusting out lives to the movement of the stars and planets. It was the point I was trying to make that understanding the origins and literal meaning of words provides a record of past beliefs and a linguistic road map to the progress we have made as a culture. The British film aptly titled ‘Hysteria’ takes a rather light hearted look at now archaic practices of gynecology and the early implementation of psychiatry. The movie is an exceptionally different take on one of the most formulaic genres in the cinematic catalogue, the romantic comedy. Typically the rom-com is a highly regulated dance where the characters move about, romances spring up , change and end all moving inexorably towards the mandatory happy ending with the couple at the heart of the story ultimately discovering true love at last. The main difference between the myriad of rom-coms out there is the always present hook, the motivating plot device that kicks the story into action. While the common devices included mistaken identity, siblings and best friends this move admittedly does come up with a novel approach; the invention and application of the vibrator for sexual release. Although this device has previously made appearances in romantic comedies as a prop I cannot recall it ever being utilized as the central theme. Despite the innovative premise the film ultimately cannot get past projecting a certain juvenile smugness of a ten year old boy telling his first dirty joke in the school yard.
The story is set in the period of the late 19th century, and era where great strides especially in medicine and the new concepts surrounding the study of the mind and emotions, psychiatry. It was also a time when the industry revolution was redefining the values and expression of society frequently in conflict with the still pervading socially acceptable morality. Back then hysteria was a fairly common medical diagnosis of women exhibiting sleep disorders, nervousness, depression and sexual frustration. The most common course of treat was for the doctor to provide manual stimulation in order to bring the patient to climax, referring to the experience by the more clinically sounding paroxysmal convulsion. The film centers on a physician, Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) specializing in the treatment of women. He takes on a young associate, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) to assist with his practice. His dexterity in eliciting the desired effect during treatment is so successful that soon the office is overflowing with women waiting to be cured. The only problem is administering the treatment causes painful camps in the hands of the doctor; he can barely keep up with demands of the size of his practice, plagued by the amount of time required to treat each woman. Fortunately there is help in sight, albeit from a strand and unexpected source. A friend of the doctor, Lord Edmund St. John-Smyth (Rupert Everett) just happens to fancy himself an inventor, not an uncommon pursuit fir the more creative faction of the peerage class. He has just devised an electric feature duster as the application of electric motors to object was all the rage during the Victorian era and the new device did work but the motor caused it to strongly vibrate. Granville was a bit of a rebel in the medical community denouncing established treatments and continually searching for new methods. In a typical instance of serendipity the young doctor put together the need with the device and thought of using the vibration created by the duster to augment digital manipulation. It doesn’t take long before this new method of "vulvar massage’ catches on and the buzz is quite literally out. At this point the film is close to farce than rom-com but that is about to change. Granville lackadaisically is courting the daughter of his older partner, Emily (Felicity Jones), a proper Victorian lady. This is in contrast to her sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the complete opposite, independent, driven and fiery. Rather than proper feminine pursuits of a cultural nature Charlotte preferred to work at a mission in the poor part of town helping the indigent.
The story is very loosely based on real people and circumstances. There really was a Dr. Grandville and he did find medical uses for a vibrating electric motor although it was primarily for relieving muscle cramps. This application was touched upon here but obviously did not remain the movie’s primary focus. The film is entertaining and if done in the fashion of a sixties style sexual farce it might have fared better. The infusion of the romantic comedy elements left it with a feeling of uncertainty. The co-authors of the screenplay, Stephan and Jonah Lisa Dyer are both making their first credit in scripting. Understandably this is a higher degree of difficulty that usually faced with a freshman screenplay, the elements of the romantic comedy maybe extremely established but there are great expectations on the fans of the genre. The factor that does the most to prevent the movie from achieving its potential is the premise overshadows the relationships. A movie about organisms and vibrators is a reasonably rich source of humor but the audience remains more attentive to the prop that the characters if only out of puerile curiosity. The director, Tanya Wexler grew up in an entertainment related family similar to Ms Gyllenhaal and as a director she has a couple of previous films on her resume. She does well in pacing the antics and works to keep the emphasis on the romance and entwined relationships. If anything the audience perception of the plot is distracted by the ‘naughty’ aura still attributed to self achieved organism. When this is understood the film does demonstrate the considerable talent possessed by the filmmaker and writers. They are certain to come up with some incredible works especially in sight of their willingness to openly flaunt the persisting puritanical streak in our society.
The cast is perfect for this type of film. Dancy, Jones and Everett are no strangers to the emotional range and nuances required by a romantic comedy while Gyllenhaal has more than her share of independent films considered sexually risqué in content. While the film fall short of its potential it dies remain a raunchy romp through an admittedly alternate historical turning point in our culture. you will surely never forget the literal denotation of hysteria again.
Commentary With Director Tanya Wexler