Dir. Tanya Wexler
Coming up with an accurate one-liner to sum up Hysteria proves difficult. Is it a semi-historical tale of the invention of the vibrator; a typical period rom-com with a dose of the taboo; or an unconventional look into the unlikely repercussions of diagnoses of hysteria in the 19th century? All explanations seem inadequate because the film is everywhere and nowhere at once. But credit must be given to director Tanya Wexler if only for daring the audience to watch ‘genital massage’ on screen without nudity and within the confines of a costume drama.
Hysteria’s protagonist, Dr Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), is a medical physician in 1880s London who jumps from hospital to hospital, refusing to work for institutions that won’t put new medical research into practice. Ironically, Granville finds himself a position at Dr Robert Dalrymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) clinic, which specialises in treating women afflicted with ‘hysteria’ – a condition that, at the time, was a generic diagnosis for women who had symptoms of anxiety, depression, irritability, or sexual frustration.
Because hysteria was seen as a defect of the uterus, the methods of ‘treatment’ involved ‘genital massage’, or to put it more bluntly, manually stimulated orgasm. Granville settles in comfortably as Dr. Dalrymple’s new assistant, but discovers that his new talent leaves his hands cramped. And so, he schemes up a cheeky, profitable solution that enables him to keep his job. Cue the vibrator!
Meanwhile, Granville strikes up a courtship with Dr. Dalrymple’s boring and behaved younger daughter, Emily Dalrymple (Felicity Jones). The two share a laugh at her sister, the impassioned proto-feminist, Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who in the first scene launches in to a tirade against her father’s snobbish and sexist social mores.
From there, the narrative sinks into predictability and Hysteria unfolds as you would expect. The film’s awareness of its own progressiveness is not in the least bit subtle, and Wexler could be faulted if she didn’t simultaneously challenge the audience’s own limits and taboos, having us watch Hugh Dancy give mostly old women orgasms.
While the actual plot disappoints, the juxtaposition of scenes of raunchiness and propriety amidst the backdrop of a 19th century period drama borders on absurdity, and gives the film a comedic strength. Granville and Dalrymple certainly don’t seem to realise that they are giving women sexual gratification, and Wexler makes one of her more subtle points here, suggesting women have casually subverted the power dynamic within the diagnosis of hysteria.
Maybe a one-liner is easy after all. Hysteria is definitely a conversation starter.
With thanks to the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre.