by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 18, 2012

’... or are you just glad to see me?’ Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy star in ’Hysteria’
’... or are you just glad to see me?’ Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy star in ’Hysteria’  (Source:Sony Pictures Classics)

True story: Physicians in the 19th century used to provide genital massage to their female patients to treat their "hysteria," a nervous condition that today we might recognize as a plethora of more modern afflictions such as depression and anxiety. In our more enlightened age, a physician offering such services would lose his license, be put on a perp walk before the press, and be required to register at a state-run website. At the time, there was little or no imputation of sexual pleasure associated with the treatment. Indeed, doctors found the work difficult and boring, and it was the invention of the electric vibrator that freed them from the necessity of delivering the treatment manually.

Nowadays, vibrators are seen as sex toys, and they are ubiquitously popular--and they're not just for women any more (if they ever were). On a recent episode of the HBO series "Girls," a young man explains to a skeptical male acquaintance that his girlfriend's vibrator is a "shared tool."

The story of the vibrator's invention is certainly worth serious literary treatment; it's also fair game as comedy fodder. But how would you make a movie on the subject that is tasteful, informative, and yet entertaining?

Start by outlining the state of medical science back then, especially as it concerns human sexuality, and tie that in with the dominant social hierarchy and the myths that kept it in place. At the time, women were trussed up physically in corsets and kept even more tightly under wraps socially, emotionally, and psychologically. A woman who evinced independence or any strong opinion could be written off as "hysterical," and, this movie informs us, might even be subject to surgical punishment for it by having her uterus removed.

(A word of explanation here: "Hysteria" comes from the Greek for "uterus" and it was thought that hysteria was due to hyperactivity of that organ. In centuries past, physicians even thought that the uterus was capable of migrating around within a woman's body, causing various symptoms.)

Enter so-called "vulva massage." This really was a medical treatment for uptight, nervous, and anxious women. We might find it hard to believe, but the physicians who administered this treatment were utterly serious about its therapeutic benefit. If the subject seems bizarre to us, that may be due to our ability to recognize a certain naivetť on the part of doctors from back in the day, but it's also due to our own contemporary anxieties and blind spots around sexuality as a normal aspect of healthy human beings, and its expression an equally wholesome part of life.

The idea behind providing genital stimulation in the clinical setting was to provide what characters in Tanya Wexler's new rom-com "Hysteria" refer to as "the hysterical paroxysm." (Today we would call it getting off.) The men of the time seemed incapable of comprehending that women had a full range of sexual needs and feelings; more foreign to the patriarchal expectations of that earlier era was the idea that women would feel a need to make significant contributions outside of the home: Get an education, start a foundation, care for the sick and the needy.

This is more or less what Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is up to, though it shocks the sensibilities of her father, a London physician played by Jonathan Pryce. Charlotte runs a "settlement house," a sort of center for the poor where children can learn to read, the sick can be tended, and the hungry receive a modest meal. (This is another genuine period detail: the "settlement movement" was widespread for a few decades at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.) Charlotte's sprightly manner and complete conviction strike her father as manifestations of hysteria; she's a "difficult case," as Dr. Dalrymple puts it. To shake her out of her hysteria and into a more socially acceptable frame of mind, Dr. Dalrymple cuts off his financial support to Charlotte; it doesn't work.

She simply throws herself that much more fully into her vocation, and if her own family won't provide financial support for the settlement house, she's willing to go to other wealthy families for a contribution or a loan. (The sentiment she encounters from the moneyed is that the working poor are "the draft horses of society," and that charitable works will be lost on them; it's not unlike the opinions of certain Republican Party splinter groups currently enjoying their peak influence.)

Charlotte's beautiful, well-mannered sister, Emily (Felicity Jones), is more the feminine idea of the age. She dresses nicely, she plays Chopin, and when she exercises her intellectual gifts, it's with the trivial pseudo-science of phrenology, a skill more suited to the drawing room than to a health practice.

It's into this family picture, and against this level of medical science, that Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) ventures. In his way, Granville is just as much a rebel against staid conformity as Charlotte: He believes in "germ theory" when older, more established doctors cling to notions of vapors and humors. In a running joke, every time Granville is rejected by the exiting medical establishment he finds himself being passed on the street by horse-drawn carts from companies for various elixirs and patent medicines--fraudulent concoctions that do nothing to promote health, but that make hucksters rich. It's a deft bit of commentary on our own fraudulent medical system; one keeps expecting to see a cart labeled "Managed Care" go trundling by.

The movie has a comedic flair and a screwball sensibility, but it also has discipline and fire. The screenplay pulls this combination off by keeping a tight focus on the interlocking central elements of sex and politics; whereas Granville seeks to tread the newly lit paths of scientific research, Charlotte has a vision that reaches far into the future. She foresees a time when "women will have the vote, they'll have equal education, and control over their own bodies." In short, she foresees a golden age of feminism, an age that's now, after a too-brief flight, in danger of foundering. If anything, this film can be read as a call to arms, arriving as it does just in time for the GOP's election year "War on Women."

Really, in what other climate could a movie about this subject find a mainstream audience? In its nutshell presentation, the plot seems awkward, but with the right wing's reactionary grapeshot targeting women in the current culture war skirmish, this movie seems not only timely but also necessary, and while the clinical technique is discussed delicately and presented in fine taste (velvet curtains and everything), the movie doesn't pussyfoot around the basic facts of the matter.

Neither does young Dr. Granville, who is so nervous about sexual matters that the mere offer of a cheap hand job from a (sadly stereotyped) sultry housemaid reduces him to jelly. It says something about the disconnect men of the era operated under that this same sexually timid young man quickly picks up the finer points of Dr. Dalrymple's technique, and the practice (which caters mostly to upper-crust women in need of such specialized attention) quickly grows. Dalrymple starts to see Granvile as a successor to the practice as well as a future son-in-law. The audience sees this, too, but whereas Dalrymple is thinking he will marry off Emily to his new junior partner, it's clear from the first (when, in the tradition of screwball comedies, they "meet cute") that Granville is destined to end up with Charlotte.

Just when we're in danger of forgetting that this is, after all, a movie about the invention of the vibrator, Granville's best friend and benefactor, a wealthy inventor named Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett, in wonderfully droll form) pops up with one newfangled whirligig or another (a telephone that connects to other phones at random; an electric feather duster). St. John-Smythe seems to be an early model "sassy gay friend," notorious in the press for his somewhat outrť hijinks and given to the odd bout of flirtation. (At one point we see a handsome young man asleep on the stairs outside his rooms; at another juncture, he seems to be inventing telephone sex.)

If he's not gay, St. John-Smythe is at least somewhat Byronesque in his appetites. It's a more or less straight line from A to V and you can work out the maths in your head pretty quickly that Granville's new specialty and St. John-Smythe's electronics wizardry are going to fuse into a glorious whole of technological (and sexual) advancement.

Is this how it really happened? Does it matter? "Hysteria" contains enough grains of truth to make it just salty, and just spicy, enough that you soon get over the initial uncomfortable impulse to giggle and enjoy some real laughs. The sets and costumes help (this is a well-produced movie), but it's Wexler's direction, and a uniformly strong cast, that bring the project home. "Steady on," and "Tally-ho," indeed.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.