Judge Gordon Sullivan is recovering from a vibratory experience.
He created an invention that turned on half the world.
Two movies played the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival that dealt with early explorations into female hysteria. The first was A Dangerous Method, a strangely-subdued character piece from David Cronenberg that explored the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung through their relationship with Sabina Spielrein. It was a dark, somber picture that strove for exacting historical detail. The other film that played was Hysteria, which is in just about every way the inverted doppelganger of A Dangerous Method. Light instead of dark, conventional instead of daring, and a romantic comedy more than a character drama. Though perhaps not as intriguing as A Dangerous Method, Hysteria provides viewers with a new look at the obscure origins of the modern day convenience of the vibrator.
Facts of the Case
It's the end of the 19th century, and many women suffer from the psychological illness of hysteria…the symptoms include nervousness, lack of concentration, and anxiety. One of the cures is pelvic massage…under the expert hands of a doctor, women are stimulated in their pelvic region until they reach a "paroxysm"…what we today recognize as an orgasm. The film Hysteria concerns a young doctor, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy, King Arthur) who grows a sizable following for his skills as a pelvic massager. However, when a friend invents an electric duster, Granville finds a new use for the vibrating device. Meanwhile, he's also falling in love with fiery advocate for women's rights (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary).
Taken purely as a period romantic comedy, Hysteria is pretty satisfying. The superiority we modern viewers have over the pre-orgasmic characters of the film creates some moments of humor. Maggie Gyllenhaal's advocacy gives contemporary viewers the opportunity to see we're not just watching a bunch of backwards crackpots experiment on women. Some will also appreciate the light touch the film takes with regards to female orgasm. While it's a frank film filled with moans and groans, it doesn't try to be too explicit about what's going on under the covers.
Though I'm not sure how the production lucked into such a wonderful cast, the actors here acquit themselves with the utmost skill. Hugh Dancy is known primarily for his looks, but his Mortimer is sensitive and sympathetic. He evinces genuine care for his patients, and when the comedic moments come he's got great timing. Maggie Gyllenhaal brings her usual gravity to the role, and her smile sells the softer side of her militant character. Jonathan Pryce is the surprise choice here as the mentor to young Mortimer. His presence brings a weight that the picture would otherwise lack, while is role is still primarily humorous. The rest of the cast (which includes smaller moments from Felicity Jones and Rupert Everett) is also excellent.
The show also does a good job bringing its Victorian world to life. Costumes are not as sumptuous as the best (aka most well-funded) costume dramas, Hysteria makes up for a relatively low budget by focusing on the odd details of Victorian life that other films ignore. Thus, the screen that stands between doctor and patient during pelvic massage is a beautifully bizarre contraption, and the first vibrator itself looks like something a mad scientist might craft (and it's certainly nothing that I would let anyone get near sensitive parts). Though it's not a steam-punk re-imagining or anything crazy, Hysteria shows numerous sides of Victorian life that other films never touch.
There's also little to complain about with the DVD itself. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is solid all around. The film's muted, autumnal color scheme is well saturated. Detail, especially on the exquisite Victorian interiors, is good, and black levels remain appropriate. There are no significant digital issues to mar the presentation. The 5.1 surround track keeps dialogue audible and well balanced. The score is as light and airy as the film, and it's well-reproduced here. There's a bit of atmosphere in the use of surrounds as well.
Extras start with a commentary featuring director Tanya Wexler, who talks about the making of the film, her actors, and some of the historical material involved. We also get a short piece entitled "An Evening with Tanya Wexler, Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce" that finds those involved discussing the film. We learn more about the flick in a fine behind the scenes featurette, as well as in a handful of deleted scenes. Finally, we get an excerpt from Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm that runs for about 45 minutes. It covers the same period as the film, giving more historical detail.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Even in the 21st century a significant percentage of women do not have orgasms despite their desire to, and the mention of a vibrator is as likely to bring giggles and blushes in many corners instead of frank discussion about orgasms, a basic adult bodily function. In that light, Hysteria seems to want to have its cake and eat it to. On the one hand orgasms are a significant mental health issue (and the specter of female suffrage is raised), while on the other hand this story must be embedded in a light comedic romance story. It's also a bit disturbing when the camera cuts to the faces of various animals when a woman orgasms.
Hysteria was in and out of select theaters in less time than it takes for Mortimer's machine to encourage an orgasm. Whether that was because Sony didn't know how to market a period romantic comedy about female orgasms or because Hysteria's mixture of female orgasms and period comedy didn't sit right with audiences is hard to determine. In either case, this DVD is an excellent way to revisit the film. It's sure to appeal to fans of any of the actors, and while it's hardly the norm for period romance movies, it's worth a rental for those who like Victorian-themed films, especially those that focus on women.
It's nothing to get hysterical about, but Hysteria is Not Guilty.
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