Hysteria, a saucy, provocative but never pretentious diversion, is a rare sex comedy where women are in on the joke. While there are thousands of films that joke about or even simulate sex, all too often females serve as plot devices at best and props at worst.
But in director Tanya Wexler's full-of-life chucklefest regarding the invention of the vibrator, women are not only having a jolly good time up on the big screen (and in a particular doctor's stirrups) but they offer historical consideration to an issue that is as contemporary as the 2012 Idaho Legislature: a woman's choice regarding her body.
In fact, I couldn't help but envision the male-dominated Idaho Statehouse as I watched Hysteria's dramatization of 1880s London--a repressed patriarchy of men who dismiss women's depression or anxiety as emotional "hysteria." Fast-forward 130 years and we had this year's proposed legislation from Republican Sen. Chuck Winder, insisting that he knew better than an Idaho woman regarding her reproductive rights, urging a mandatory, pre-abortion ultrasound. Put Winder into a morning coat and top hat and he might have fit quite nicely into a trussed-up Victorian age.
Hysteria is the (mostly true) tale of young Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) and his invention of the mechanical vibrator, along with a bit of help from inventor Edmund St. John-Smythe (played by a wonderful Rupert Everett) and feminist firebrand Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The film covers plenty of landscape but sails along at a nice, peppy pace, pausing occasionally for a smart snicker or full chortle.
Granville, suffering from what we consider today as carpel tunnel syndrome due to a nonstop carrousel of female patients needing clitoral massage to relieve their hysteria, turns to John-Smythe, an original steampunk gearhead of gadgetry. Together, they retrofit a motorized feather duster into ... well, you get where this is going, don't you?
But it is Granville and Dalrymple's sparks-fly-when-they're-together relationship that is the sweet soul of the film. A suffragette two decades before the phrase was coined, Dalrymple runs a halfway house/soup kitchen in London's shadows, pushing back against convention and, any chance she can, male domination. Gyllenhaal embodies her role with effortless charm--a clever force of nature and always comfortable in her own skin.
"I do think [sex] makes us flushed and uncomfortable," said Gyllenhaal at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2011, when I first saw the film. "I just don't think people talk about it very much."
But there's plenty to talk about, and enjoy, with Hysteria. For the record though, my sense is that distributors did an abysmal job of promoting this movie. Gyllenhaal and Dancy are swell, the production values are top notch and the story is highly original. They should have trusted audiences more to find, accept and embrace the film. Hysteria is crafted with a steady hand to a satisfying climax.