No scene in Hysteria is more memorable than the one in which three men in goggles stand around a woman in stirrups and try to get her off with a new-fangled electric vibrator.
It isn't as hysterically funny as it could be — the woman in question sings opera at the height of her climax, a Victorian version of the overblown moans and groans of modern pornography — but the scene is still amusing. And how could it not be? This period piece, based on real events, about the invention of the vibrator, is entertaining, light, and at least marginally informative — all by the grace of its subject matter.
The accompanying love story between Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) and Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is less remarkable. But the love between these two visionaries (Charlotte for women's rights, Mortimer for medical advancements) fits into the overarching theme of the film: that times were changing in the world of medicine and women alike. This is what keeps the film interesting. Set it in another time and place and you have another romantic comedy like any other.
Instead, our story takes us into the heart of medical practice in the late 19th century, a time when doctors were just beginning, some more readily than others, to move from old potions and apothecaries to more advanced modern medicine. It was a time when germs were still a mere theoretical threat. (In the first few scenes, an ailing old woman in a hospital bed looks horrified as Dr. Granville explains the tiny creatures infiltrating her body, to which she says, "Oh, I don't think I have those.")
And if germs were misunderstood, you can imagine how women were treated. The film suggests that nearly every woman with a slightly off-kilter temperament was diagnosed with female hysteria, a condition of uncontrollable emotions and a cocktail of other symptoms presumably related to sexual dysfunction. Enter (ahem) the vibrator, an electric massager that looks like a handheld blender and used to induce "hysterical paroxysms" — orgasms — in afflicted women.
Of course, before vibrators, all the hard work was done the old-fashioned way. Under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), Mortimer is introduced to the art of manual stimulation, an art that quickly wears out his hand and threatens his medical career. Dismissing advice ("I hear the French do it with their tongues!") from his wealthy, machine-obsessed friend Edmund (Rupert Everett), Mortimer instead repurposes a mechanized feather duster. The handheld device promises to save his career and revolutionize the treatment of female hysteria.
There is, of course, much more to the romance between Charlotte and Mortimer, but not much worth mentioning here. Suffice it to say, the acting is charming, the circumstances are amusing, and you might come away with a little more knowledge of women's history.
Opening Friday, June 15th