As soon as I heard of Hysteria, a comedic retelling of the invention of the electric vibrator in Victorian England, I knew I had to see it. Popular history has been an interest of mine for years, especially when it comes to sex in culture, since that’s the area where people get most wound up, perturbed, and bizarre.
In the 1880s, Hugh Dancy is the young Dr. Granville, who keeps getting fired because of his modern perspective (he believes in germs!) and refusal to kowtow to the hierarchy of authority. He’s hired to help Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) with his private practice. The female clientele require manual stimulation to generate “paroxysms” as treatment for their hysteria, the diagnosis for a type of neurotic condition considered unique to women. (Consider the semantic roots of “hysteria” and “hysterectomy”.) In short, the female orgasm was considered a medical treatment for disorders of the nervous system. Only the doctors were so deluded that they didn’t realize that that’s what they were doing.
“It’s the plague of our time,” Dalrymple tells Granville, postulating that half the women in London suffer from hysteria due to having an “overactive uterus”. He believes the resulting “nymphomania, frigidity, melancholia, anxiety” can be treated through the external stimulation of pelvic massage with “good, steady pressure” to the affected organs. The doctors find the manual stimulation “tedious, tiring work”, and the mechanical assistant eventually allows the treatment of many more patients without risk of hand strain.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Felicity Jones are Dalrymple’s daughters. The former is a crusader and social reformer aiming to help the poor and fight for rights for women; the latter is simply a proper young lady, leading to conflict between the two over many things, including Granville. The always entertaining Rupert Everett is Granville’s roommate, a high-class dilettante inventor.
Hysteria is a refreshing blend of costume drama (with the attendent fun of “look how weird life/clothes/behavior was back then”) and romantic comedy with a distinctive point of view. It’s not particularly shocking, unless you find the idea that women have sexual drives and desires such, but quite informative in an entertaining way. Actually, I was shocked at one point, but it was at the harshness of the punishment Gyllenhaal’s character risks (forced sterilization, with attendant risk of death) just because she won’t shut up and sit down.
There’s a good deal of humor just in watching the old-fashioned costumes on the characters while they’re trying to be so proper about a doctor masturbating his client so she’ll be a well-behaved woman. The scene where the doxy maid (Sheridan Smith) becomes the first vibrator test subject is particularly hilarious. Also, Dancy has the most wonderful set of put-upon expressions. It’s refreshing to see a movie where intelligence, plain-spoken-ness, and strength in a woman are all shown as attractive virtues. In case it’s not clear, I enjoyed and recommend this film.
There’s a commentary by Tanya Wexler, director, that I haven’t listened to yet. The “Behind the Scenes” is under six minutes of the usual — how the movie came to be, restatement of the premise, descriptions of the characters — with the director, producers, and actors. There are four deleted scenes, a total of three minutes, and the movie’s trailer. (It appears that the same set of extras appears on both the DVD and Blu-ray, a pleasant change from the usual practice.)
The twelve-and-a-half-minute “An Evening With Tanya Wexler, Hugh Dancy, and Jonathan Pryce” took place after a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. The three answer questions from the audience. Pryce’s dry wit is a high point, and the three provide some insightful behind-the-scenes information.
What convinced me to buy the movie — I saw it and enjoyed it before the home media release — was the inclusion on the disc of excerpts from Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm (43 minutes of the 74-minute film). This documentary discusses some of the history of vibrators, including the astounding fact that in Texas, their sale was illegal because they were considered obscene. (This was in 2003. The law was finally thrown out in 2008, after the documentary was made.) It’s also amazing to see some of the old examples of the devices included.
(Disclaimer: This movie was released by Sony Pictures Classics. I work for a division of Sony that has nothing to do with movie-making and bought this DVD for myself.)