A scene from Tanya Wexler's HYSTERIA, playing at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19 - May 3, 2012. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

By Janine Gericke.

During this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, I had the opportunity to see Hysteria, Tanya Wexler’s Victorian era comedy about the birth of the vibrator. The film was co-sponsored by the home of San Francisco’s finest vibrators, Good Vibrations.

Hysteria gives us a glimpse into the accidental invention of a lady’s best friend. Set in London in the 1880s, we meet Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a doctor who reads the latest science journals and just wants to educate people on the dangers of germs and how, if people simply wash their hands, they can prevent the spread of disease. When he is let go from yet another job, he meets Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who runs a women’s clinic. Dalrymple specializes in a very specific treatment for women: He uses “vulva massage” to treat patients for anxiety and depression, which in the 1880s went by the name of the psychiatric disease, hysteria. Granville takes a job with Dalrymple, becoming very good with his hands, and leading a steady stream of women to visit the office every day. Of course, Granville’s good luck can only last so long, and he begins to suffer from hand cramps. With the help of his inventor friend, Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), who initially made an electric feather duster, Granville creates the first electric vibrating massager. Some of the scenes with the vibrator are rather silly, like when the doctors try the massager on an opera-singing patient who has lost her ability to sing. Upon being treated, she raises her voice in a full-throated aria.

A scene from Tanya Wexler's HYSTERIA, playing at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19 - May 3, 2012. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

The film is also a romantic comedy, albeit a predictable one. Dr. Dalrymple has two daughters, the straight-laced Emily (Felicity Jones) is the apple of her father’s eye, while Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a rebel, who has no interest in abiding by her father’s rules. Granville is immediately smitten with Emily, but the audience knows whom he should really be with. Charlotte challenges everyone around her, including Granville, but Emily seems to only want to make her father happy—marrying a doctor would make him very happy. Charlotte, a suffragette and socialist, works at a settlement house, where she teaches children how to read and wash their hands, being the only other person in the film who is concerned with germs. Charlotte and Mortimer develop a mutual respect and the sparks begin to fly. Gyllenhaal is wonderful as Charlotte, a woman who fights for the rights of others—today she would be considered a feminist and advocate.

It seems only fitting that Wexler would take such a lighthearted approach to this film, considering that the subject matter could make anyone blush. Why is it that today, the subject of sex or masturbation causes a chuckle? Wexler seems to have fun with the subject matter, as well as the technology of the time. Everett’s inventor spends a lot of time on his telephone, calling the only other existing numbers just to find out who will be on the other line. At one point Mortimer asks his friend if he thinks this new technology will stick, which caused the audience to giggle.

I enjoyed Hysteria for what it is, an airy comedy. I don’t tend to seek out romantic comedies, but this film is more than just that. Not all of the characters may be enthralling, but the film does tell an entertaining story. Gyllenhaal, Dancy, Pryce, and Everett are definitely the highlights of the film. If you are looking for something light that may leave you a little red in the face, check out this film.

Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

Read Carolyn Lake’s review of Hysteria here.


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