A comedy about the doctor that invented the vibrator, Hysteria surprisingly recreates the context in which the medical field both relied upon hysterical paroxysm (a.k.a. orgasms) as a financial staple and necessarily dismissed it as pleasure. Blinders were optional and strategically applied. This is a portion of medical history well-covered by Rachel Maines' book "The Technology of Orgasm," and writer/director Tanya Wexler explores this piece of medical anthropology through soft-exchanges and meet cutes, for which there's some historical backing. Though the film is a fairly plastic British period piece with all the intimacy of a Hitachi Wand, the script captures some delicate and intelligent facets of a tensely conflicted era. The draw is apparent: this is sex that turns a blind eye to pleasure, and when sanitized, it's like a joke that only the audience knows is dirty. It can't break into the multiplex but it'll turn them on at the arthouse.
Hugh Dancy plays Dr. Mortimer Granville, a doctor forward thinking enough to wash his hands in a time when germs are theoretical. Firm in his convictions he's constantly getting the boot from his bosses, who, in Victorian England, are each believers in a different brand of medicine but the same brand of authority. A really intelligent montage shows him applying to different houses of medicine, and each looks like something out of National Geographic circa 1880--the anthropological touchstones are through the roof. What's amazing is how drastic each approach is and how dire the results; this makes Mortimer look not just like a good doctor but like a savior to bravely stand above butchers and snake oil salesmen. When he finds Jonathan Pryce's house of women's medicine, a place where monied women go for a hand job to relieve their ailments, he's finally working in a house of healing. And since sex has nothing to do with orgasm and pleasure can't be felt by the female of the species (according to the guy doling out the hysterical paroxysms) what they're doing is nothing but good! The doctor's two daughters are as polar as the cops in Lethal Weapon: Felicity Jones plays the hobby-happy good wife, Maggie Gyllenhaal is her era's equivalent of a non-profit founder with a settlement in her charge and working class people to assist. Not able to handle the way Gyllenhaal rocks the house, Dancy declines, unwittingly making a point about his new gig as Dr. Handjob. When Dancy is fired for not effectively un-pleasuring someone, he goes to the house of his friend, a bored bourgeois who invents for fun (Rupert Everett). A dusting tool is discovered among the test inventions and Dancy fools with it and brings it to Pryce, convinced the tool will make everyone's life easier and will unwittingly relieve their handcramps at the same time.
Outside of a perfunctory courtroom scene, Hysteria has nary a masturbatory moment—though it does actually feature its fair share of masturbation. With little interest in the formalities that make the Victorian era arousing to sociologists and production designers alike, Wexler's debut feature wisely focuses on giving a broader view of a vexing era. Really: in what world can doctors simultaneously rely upon the orgasms of middle class housewives and not be called gigolos...or even "Love Doctors?" But the script wisely has these men contort their logic to cover-up for their failures as men—what really gets the movie hot and bothered is proving that the right context can redefine anything.
Hysteria doesn't use the medical profession's moment of sustained insanity ("hysteria" is unique to women) to explain why the Victorian era was so effed up. It does, however, get a bit too caught up in the troubles of the classes, and while that's relevant to the repression that sends women to "the women's doctor," it's cramming too much in. Seriously, they even get a little Victorian cuisine in there. But it's a playful film many will like in part because it takes it subject lightly without making it the butt of the joke. Though if you asked these Victorians, they probably think that's where the pleasure comes from anyway.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Rupert Everett, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones
Director: Tanya Wexler
Screenwriters: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer
Producers: Judy Cairo, Sarah Curtis, Tracey Becker
Rating: R for sexual content.
Running time: 95 min.
Release date: May 18 NY/LA