* * Hysteria. Written by Stephen Dyer & Jonah Lisa Dyer, based on a story by Howard Gensler. Directed by Tanya Wexler
|Pryce, Everett and Dancy prepare to explore inner space.|
Bill Clinton was criticized for asking what the meaning of "is" is, but there’s powerful use in defining our way out of certain awkwardnesses. Consider the antique malady known as hysteria—the supposed excess of "wombiness" in women that led to symptoms like anxiety, lethargy, and moodiness. For centuries, the condition was widely diagnosed in lonely, dissatisfied females, and the preferred treatment was direct massage of the genitalia by the lubed-up digits of a doctor. Though the procedure often led to what was politely known as "paroxysms", to the housewives, spinsters, nuns and grandmothers involved there was nothing sexual about it. As their doctors assured them, proper female pleasure--strictly defined--was only possible with the introduction of the male member. By the late 19th century, some well-to-do women were indulging in these therapeutic paroxysms several times a week.
There's a good movie in the absurdity of all this. Unfortunately, Tanya Wexler's Hysteria isn't it. Even for an experienced director (which Wexler, in her first major feature, is not), finding the right tone for this subject couldn't have been easy. The easiest choice is to make a joke of it--- always tempting when matters of sex are broached in Victorian circumstances. But there are real issues here too, having to do with centuries of ignorance, suspicion and outright repression of women's bodies. Wexler wants to hint at these things too, but ends up with a movie that is neither particularly funny, nor particularly meaningful. Watching it, we feel mildly stimulated, but never enough to bring us to a state of pleasure.
The story concerns one Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a young physician so earnestly progressive in his craft that he talks himself out of several jobs. Desperate, he ends up in the practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a specialist in the kind of prestidigitation prescribed for hysteria. Granville turns out to have the magic touch, too, but long hours at what Dalrymple calls “exacting, tedious work” leaves him with the horse-and-buggy equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome. Looking into the abyss of unemployment again, Granville turns for help to his friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), an idle-rich, barely-closeted homosexual with a passion for the new science of electricity. The offspring of necessity is “Granville’s Hammer”, the first “electro-vibrator” for home use.
Wexler seems to had in mind a movie much like The Road to Wellville (1994), the quirky history of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg as interpreted by T. Coraghessan Boyle. That wasn’t a particularly good movie either, but at least featured a crazed performance by Anthony Hopkins as the celebrated breakfast cereal pioneer. Dancy’s Granville, by comparison, is a pretty sticky wicket, so dully conventional that we wonder if he’s ever had a paroxysm himself. The reason for the flat portrayal is obvious, of course: if the doctor derived any pleasure from his work, he might seem creepy. And between creepy doctors and dull ones, most of us go with the latter.
What fireworks there are in this movie are provided by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Dr. Dalrymple’s eldest daughter, Charlotte. She’s supposed to be an enjoyably spunky suffragette, but Gyllenhaal comes off more screechily annoying than appealing. Somehow, the straitlaced Granville is supposed to find her unconventionality more attractive than her quiet, brainy sister Emily (Felicity Jones). But in the game of movie expectations, Gyllenhaal is actually the more predictable choice. And by having her disparage the work of her father and Granville, the script manages to do exactly what the Victorians did—marginalize and dismiss female sexuality. Hysteria is one of those strange cases where a movie implores us to take seriously a subject it doesn’t take seriously itself.
The best part of this movie comes during the closing credits, when we get images of antique vibrators through history. Some of these look like real power tools, so chunky and lethal-looking they should have STANLEY printed on their sides. Then, as now, serious work demands substantial tools.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro