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July 24, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

Hysteria (2011) – a good excuse for a vibrator


Newsflash, gentlemen: your ladies may not be as satisfied as you think. You may find relief in the fact that the problem was much worse in the 1800s. Yet while Hysteria has plenty of nudge-nudge-wink-wink material, it seems a little wasted on glacial pacing and oddly crass jokes that fail to exploit the wider spectrum of what ‘hysteria’ was really dealing with. Oh, and it’s pretty much all from the perspective of men. Goody, I hear you say, something new and different!

Until 1952 (believe it or not), ‘hysteria’ was a catch-all diagnosis that allowed doctors to wipe their hands (‘scuse the pun) of female patients who presented with any sort of strange or vague symptoms. Back in the nineteenth century, Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) develops a deceptively simple treatment and passes on the ‘technique’ to his new and eager protege, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who’s struggled to find work ever since he started ascribing to the dastardly idea that sanitation and hygiene are important elements of basic medicine. So once he’s got a ‘hand’ on things, Dr. Granville finds himself manually administering ‘paroxysms’ to his clients, getting severe hand cramps and wooing a cardboard cut-out of 1800s feminity, Doctor Dalrymple’s daughter Emily (Felicity Jones). But, of course, in the midst of all this, Emily’s wayward, do-gooder sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) jumps in at inappropriate moments to seduce Granville with her tempestuousness and modern-day ideas of equality and sexual liberty.

It’s all depressing poppycock, really. Hysteria is based on the true story of the vibrator, but I’m the first to confess that I know nothing of the real story and doubt the portrayals in this film do anything to advance the true nature around the circumstances of the contraption’s development. A film about sex should have a certain element of sexiness about it, a certain lingering danger, and Hysteria has none of that. Instead, the subject of sex seems rarely broached unless it is used in some kind of farcical, awkward circumstance that suits the 1800s, but not the comedic sensibilities of a modern-day audience.  Don’t get me wrong; Hysteria does offer plenty of cringeworthy jokes. The doctors seem to spend most of their day crowded around a well-dressed woman’s rear quarters, attempting to relieve her of her hysterical symptoms with a contraption that looks like a really dated Star Wars laser gun. But it feels as though a certain lack of self-awareness prevents Hysteria from really taking control of a touchy subject and exploiting the heck out of it. The main demographic of this film is likely to be women, yet I felt almost alienated and distanced watching certain parts of it.

The humour in the film, for example, is a strange mix of male naivete and a distinct lack of understanding of the topic from a woman’s perspective, which unfortunately leaves Granville’s patients to do nothing more but moan and writhe under the spell of his new device. Various characters acknowledge that hysteria might really come from a failure of men to sexually please their female partners, but there is no real voice given to the epidemic; it sinks under an avalanche of naivete-based jokes and an underwhelming romance between Granville and the feisty Charlotte.

In this film, Charlotte seems to be the only outlet for a female voice and yet, she’s too perfect. She is too much of a dirty saint for her character to be believable, and her passionate resistance to conformity is exhausting and unrealistic. She works tirelessly for the poor and fights her father, yet looks stunning in an evening gown and talks openly of female sexual satisfaction, contradicting both herself and the supposed aims of the film as a vehicle for discussing the failings of a conservative and misogynistic society. Gyllenhaal has pretty much always played the contrarian, from good (Secretary) to not so good (Stranger Than Fiction), but noting this is about as useful as saying ‘Oh look! I have fingers!’ It’s not really challenging her to do better, which I know she can. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s sister sinks into the oblivion warranted by her good behaviour, and a prostitute (Sheridan Smith) who is gainfully engaged as a maid makes illogically lewd offers to Granville that would threaten her job and send her out on the street. All this silliness distracts from the sparkles of wit that repeatedly emerge through the fog of slow pacing and silly dialogue. It’s such a pity; all this weight means that female audience members (who are of course the film’s most likely demographic), really don’t have anything tangible to hold onto, other than the petite mutton chops sported by Dancy.

The characters overall are, for the most part, given little dialogue of any real substance. Rupert Everett is the primary saving grace, as a rich and laconic elder gentlemen with no interest in women and, ironically, the key to a device that will pleasure all the women in London. He gets easily the best lines and certainly has the effortless nonchalance required to play clown against Dancy’s strait-laced poker face. Yet it’s horrible to watch a film with so much potential for character development die as the pace is slowed and Granville continually says awkwardly chivalrous things to equally stiff female characters. Charlotte is no better, since she seems to blow a fuse at every turn, simply so that her effervescent personality can be shoved repeatedly in the viewer’s face. Whatever happened to thoughtful plotting and interesting situations that allow the characters to emerge? In its place, we get staid lines like ‘There is no woman on earth like you’. That’s not about to make anyone sigh in rapturous ecstasy, is it?

Hysteria is a film that is worthwhile for its interesting subject matter, giggle-worthy orgasm scenes and a good-on-paper romance that’s cute as a button if you don’t look at it too carefully. But this film is also a little bit like a woman’s libido; screw around with it too much or ignore what it wants, and it’ll turn around and replace you with something that’s cheaper, less annoying and much more portable.

Official Hysteria trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFy6cfPmjd4

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