‘Hysteria’: Hands-on humor

May 17, 2012

Interesting the difference a few months can make.

When I saw Tanya Wexler’s “Hysteria” last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, I enjoyed it for its perspective on how far we’ve come in terms of our attitudes toward women having control over their own bodies.

Eight months later, “Hysteria,” a charming comedy to be sure, suddenly feels dramatically relevant to current events – particularly the right wing’s attacks on women’s reproductive rights. When Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a forward-thinking woman in 1880 London, voices her belief that, in the not too distant future, women will be able to have the final say about their own welfare, you listen and think, “Hmmm – apparently not yet, as far as some people are concerned.”

Wexler’s film, from a script by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, is very funny about, um, touchy subjects. Oh, let’s just get it out there: This is a movie about the invention of the vibrator and women seizing the reins of their own pleasure. And it’s set in the Victorian era, at a time when conventional wisdom had it that women could only be satisfied by, as one character puts it, “the introduction of the male member.” If then.

The film’s story centers on Dr. Mortimer Granville (a wonderfully proper Hugh Dancy), a modern-thinking physician struggling against a medical establishment mired in the age of bleeding and leeching. Fired from his most recent post for insisting on following the tenets of germ theory, he struggles to find a new job – until landing one with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), whose private practice specializes in treating upper-class women.

Specifically, he deals with what he says is an epidemic of “hysteria,” a then-popular diagnosis only for women. Its cause was thought to be “a wandering uterus” and its treatment is what Dalrymple refers to as “pelvic massage,” performed on clothed women with their drawers off and their feet up in stirrups, under a drape. Dalrymple keeps at it for 45 minutes or so, until they achieve a paroxysm – in other words, he’s finger-banging them until they reach orgasm. In the name of medicine, of course.

It’s a lucrative practice but he’s got his hands full, so to speak – which is why he needs to add Granville as his assistant. The new young doctor proves so popular – and the practice grows so busy – that Granville manipulates himself right into a case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

As Dalrymple’s assistant, Granville lives with the doctor and his family, including his daughters, Charlotte (Gyllenhaal) and Emily (Felicity Jones). Charlotte is a crusader, who works with the poor at a settlement house, much to her snobbish father’s disapproval. Emily, on the other hand, studies phrenology and winds up engaged to Granville, who seems destined to take over his future father-in-law’s practice. In his spare time, Granville visits his adoptive brother, the wealthy and notorious Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), whose hobby is that new-fangled science of electricity.

The plot eventually ties Edmund’s electrical tinkering with Granville’s wrist and hand problem: At one point, while holding a prototype electric feather duster, Granville finds instant relief from pain, thanks to the gadget’s vibrations – then makes the leap that this device cold be the salvation of his medical career, if applied to his patients’ tender areas. Meanwhile, he discovers that, in fact, he is more attracted to the rebellious Charlotte, with her progressive ideas about women and the poor, than he is to the more sedate Emily.

Loosely based on history (the first vibrator was marketed as “Granville’s Hammer”), Wexler’s film deals with topics which the period characters have no way of expressing in words. Women’s sexuality? Impossible. Women as equals to men? Ghastly. Women taking control of their own needs and well-being? Certainly not. (Meanwhile, in 2012, the state of Kansas has made it legal for pharmacists to deny contraceptives to women if it goes against the pharmacist’s religious beliefs.)

The film manages to be naughty without being smutty. This is, after all, a movie about the invention of the vibrator, about male doctors manually stimulating women for the women’s pleasure (though it’s not labeled as pleasure, and the doctors regard it as exhausting physical labor). The jokes aren’t exactly innocent but manage to be witty without being exploitive.

Much of that comes from Wexler’s approach – and from the performances. There is nary a jot or tittle of sexual longing or hunger from the men – and most of the women are too proper to call it what it is. If anything, the humor comes from the perpetual British reticence and sense of propriety, even in a situation in which the most basic human desire is at issue. Dancy is particularly enjoyable as the earnest, put-upon doctor who just wants to help people, despite the numerous obstacles placed in his path.

Pryce is equally good as the rigid and proper doctor, as concerned with social standing as with healing. Jones makes an attractive but pragmatic Emily, while Gyllenhaal has exactly the kind of juice and vitality that everyone else works so hard to tamp down.

If the plotting at the end gets a bit complicated and rushed, well, that’s a minor quibble. Otherwise, “Hysteria” is an engaging comedy of manners, about a time when its subject was not discussed by the well-mannered.

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