Humorous Hysteria a Much Needed Conversation Starter
by Kristin Battestella
In 1880 London, Doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) joins Doctor Robert Dalrymple's (Jonathan Pryce) clinic for women. Granville works tirelessly, catering to his patients to the detriment of his hand until his wealthy inventor friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett) experiments with an electric duster that's actually a powerful, vibrating massager that makes the hysterical patients sing - literally. The demure Emily (Felicity Jones) catches Granville's eye, and Dalrymple hopes his protege and daughter will marry and secure his practice's future. Unfortunately, his older spitfire daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) advocates for the poor – butting heads with authorities who think she should be diagnosed with the titular medical condition. Granville must choose if he wants to idle in a safe practice or take a risk in helping Charlotte, who has no interest in his jolly machine.
A humorous montage of hungry, crying, depressed women wanting to kill the unfulfilling men in their lives opens this 2011 comedy directed by Tanya Wexler (Finding North). Unfortunately, be they young or old and whatever their problems, the baffled male doctors have diagnosed them all with hysteria. It's surgery for that overactive uterus or institutions for the permanently hysterical, which seems to be about half the women in London. The waiting room is packed as the trying to be sympathetic doctors one by one provide their ghastly, tiring women's medicine with manual stimulation. The patients are fully clothed, buttoned up, and veiled from view while the medically trained but nonetheless confused men calmly douse their hands in musk oil. They formally calculate the shortness of breath over the circular index finger motions, watch the clock, and take notes. The right hand is too cold, but the left takes too long without “completing the treatment.” No mentions of penis or anyone gaining pleasure parallel the inept male attitudes – Hysteria's not making a slight, just recounting the then misguided science. Rigid thrombus phrenology winks in the conversation accent the multi-layered humor as the whole idea toes the modern line between being unethical with your lady patients and just downright preposterous that this was the clueless norm. Here, women with an opinion are viewed as volatile, and men flustered over the forward ladies riding bicycles much prefer the easily smitten, gentile ladies under control. Fortunately, a wacky, spinning cleaning tool prototype with tingling, tickling vibrations massage the injured hand and just might hit the right spot. Our male inventors debate how something electrical and potentially dangerous could work on “a lady's most gentle areas,” but they put on the goggles as the generator flutters and the lights dim, astounded over the three paroxysms in five minutes. Marketing their device is a risky venture, but their hysteria cure is a success when women want to know what it is called so they can ask for it by name. Hysteria is not a traditional period piece but has a modern viewpoint moving at a quirky pace with montages, doors slammed in one's face, and bemusing visuals as all the ladies stare at the handsome doctors. While it would have been interesting to have a more dramatic telling, this is shrewdly impish rather than anything scandalous or torrid. Hysteria is a lighthearted tale of the women's experience inspiring a man to invention and profit framed in an obvious romantic comedy bend. The guy with the perfect girl really falls for the radical lady instead and it all comes out at a ball before a public resolution with his confession of love saving the day. At times, Hysteria also relies on millennial parallels and cliches with a woman talking of feminine revolutions or saying a man needs to walk a mile in her shoes. Such contemporary intrusions may seems uneven or ridiculous, however, the women here are punished by loans, fathers, and police with trials where the only line of defense is a doctor recommending the accused be sent to a sanitarium for a hysterectomy rather than prison. A woman cannot defend herself because she can only speak when spoken to by a man in charge, and the notion of a doctor simply talking to his lady patients to find out what other unsatisfied restrictions are happening in their lives is only briefly addressed. The upscale refuse to help the poor and the idea that all a woman needs is an orgasm to make her happy is a happenstance luxury while those with real medical needs can't afford treatment. Though the unjust statements are wrapped in humorous dressings, these Victorian dilemmas are not as far fetched as we'd like to think. We chuckle at Hysteria's story, but it's contemporary styling shows us that not much has really changed. We're still arguing over women voters and the female's right to be in charge of her own body, amirite?
Hugh Dancy's (Elizabeth I) idealistic Doctor Granville can't get a job thanks to his outspoken confrontations with quack, so-called men of science who won't read the latest research and con their patients with placebo pills. Granville wants to help people with the emerging medical revolution, but he can't make his way in the world without help from wealthy, winking, experimenting friends such as Lord Rupert Everett (My Best Friend's Wedding) who jokes that the French use their tongues to aide female patients diagnosed with hysteria. Pleasure, however, has nothing to do with it, and Granville puts his duty to the practice above the randy maid's advances. He keeps his hand in ice and squeezes a ball to strengthen it as his appointment book fills with lucrative but exhausting patients. Of course, Maggie Gyllenhaal's (Frank) progressive and shocking Charlotte is a different kind of exasperating, arguing that all this hysteria would be unnecessary if husbands could just appreciate their wives' pleasures. Desperate to help the less fortunate, she takes the injured poor to see Granville against the wishes of her stubborn widower father. Jonathan Pryce's (Tomorrow Never Dies) set in his ways doctor refuses to give Charlotte her promised dowry to support her East End humanitarian causes – dowries are for marriage only and he's not wasting his own money on her efforts when they tarnish his upscale clinic. Charlotte embarrasses everyone by using her mind, proclaiming women won't stay in the kitchen or sit idle in the drawing room much longer thanks to new university options and suffragette protests. Her expecting equality in a relationship stuns one and all just as much as when she – gasp!– speaks of a friend's pregnancy at the dinner table. Such women without decorum just won't due, yet Charlotte's feisty makes Granville question his feelings for perfect English rose Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). A beautiful fiancee who knows her place, a partnership in a respected practice, and moneymaking royalties from his Jolly Molly massager should be everything Granville wants. However, he listens to his patients and sees things clearly once Charlotte's trial puts the need to respect women in perspective.
It's both silly and scandalous, but the red velvet modesty curtains hide what's behind the medical stirrups – an elusive inner sanctum matching all this stiff upper lip decorum. Cheeky almost whimsical music accents those fancy frocks, feathered caps, furs, spats, and top hats peppering Hysteria's Victorian London. Damask wallpaper, carriages, and upscale private practices, however, contrast with early hospital crowding, dirty aprons, leeches, and arguing over sepsis. Sterilizing tools to clean away blood tainted with invisible infection causing germs does sound like some new kind of poppycock, doesn't it? East End settlement houses struggle with impoverished ideals while wealthy investors nonchalantly toy with newfangled equipment, unusual contraptions, early generators, and supposedly time saving inventions. The gizmos and gadgets add to Hysteria's charm, and the blu-ray edition offers commentaries, deleted scenes, making of features, and festival round tables alongside a documentary excerpt from Passion and Power: The Technology of the Orgasm. It's illegal to own more than six vibrators in some states? People don't not know what a clitoris is? In this sample from the 2007 feature length release, women authors and sexual experts recall life in the nineteen seventies when the man was the lion and it was a woman's job to please him. If she wanted pleasure, however, that made her a whore. Again, unfortunately, nothing has changed, has it? Hysteria took over seven years to make because no one would back such a risky movie by women, for women, and not just about women, but about women's sexuality. Today, however, I think a picture like Hysteria would be treated very differently, not swept under the rug, but sought out and embraced. Amen.
Then again, early in my first draft notes, I jotted this comment, and it's worth keeping:
If this is Rated R just because they talk about a woman's orgasm without showing any nudity or sex that is pretty shitty.
Indeed, Hysteria should be PG-13 at best. In fact, one would think it makes sense to discuss equal sexual pleasures in media and sex education rather than leaving the nitty gritty of the human sexual experience to the unrealistic presentations in pornography, which are designed to please men by degrading women rather than embracing equal opportunity thrills. What's with all the choke holds and women being so ecstatic over a shot of jizz in the eye? Why are our cultural depictions of sex designed for male gratification while the historical, amusing conversation about women's pleasure in Hysteria is restricted with a capital R? The female orgasm somehow still inspires fear yet western society encourages sexy advertising with a carefully crafted ideal of the sensual woman to stimulate men. Hysteria is worth seeing just to begin a healthy dialogue – illumining this mystique which is still perceived as something naughty and obscure rather than normal and natural. The lighthearted approach in Hysteria makes it easy to wink at the tingling and laugh at the shocks, intriguing those unaware to look up the tantalizing history behind the charm here.