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May 25, 2012

Period pieces are an easy draw. All manner of cinematic sins can be forgiven if the characters are dressed up in old-timey garb and affecting posh accents, usually British. Such is the case with Hysteria, which would be an entirely run-of-the-mill romantic comedy if it were set in the 1980s instead of the 1880s. It even has the same hear-me-roar firebrand of a female lead. There are some nice motions towards feminism and social justice, but ultimately no follow-through.

From ancient times until disturbingly recently, the medical establishment has had a convenient explanation for any physiological or psychological complaint a woman has presented which is not amenable to an obvious explanation: there’s something wrong with her lady bits that’s making her act funny. They referred to the supposed condition as hysteria, after the Greek hystera, meaning uterus. It sounds like the setup to a joke, but we still say that someone freaking out for no good reason is hysterical; they’re acting like a silly woman. I wish I were making this up.

One of the common treatments prescribed in the late nineteenth century — at a time when Sigmund Freud was laying the groundwork of modern psychoanalysis on the newfound bedrock of actually talking to women about their emotions — was pelvic massage. The method was supposed to induce a paroxysm, stimulating and recalibrating the nervous system. Of course we all understand what’s really going on.

Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) is a proponent of this therapy, and he has a nicely profitable medical practice administering the treatment to the well-off women of London. His two daughters, Emily and Charlotte (Felicity Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal) couldn’t be more different; Emily is dutiful and obedient, while Charlotte is brash and outspoken, leaving the house to run an outreach in the East End.

Enter the young Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy). He has Emily’s sense of duty and propriety, especially as he seeks a job with Dr. Dalrymple, but he also has some of Charlotte’s progressive spirit as he campaigns for wider acceptance of the germ theory of disease. Incidentally, I’m no expert but I think this is slightly anachronistic.

All this pelvic massage is hard work, and Granville is driven to repetitive stress injuries until a lucky coincidence involving his friend, Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), and his electromechanical hobby-work leads to the earliest example of the electric vibrator.

This direction is well-known to anyone walking into the theater, so from the opening scenes a fair chunk of the humor comes from junior-high double entendres that are highbrow because, well, because this is a period piece. Emily — an amateur phrenologist — declares that the key to Granville’s future lies in his “rigid thrombus”, and a titter runs through the audience. Some of this is actually funny, mostly due to the bone-dry delivery; I must admit that there’s something absurd in watching Pryce, Dancy, and Everett donning steampunk goggles in all seriousness in front of a nervous, spread-eagled test subject.

Obviously we’re meant to think how backward these people are; they don’t believe in germs, they do believe in phrenology, and they’re making careers off of a fictitious illness which they’re too uptight to admit is really about sex. And yet are we really that much better? By far the biggest comedic draw to this movie is the idea that — and stay with me here — women are having orgasms. What a preposterously silly concept! To make it all the more hilarious, many of them are well past thirty, or even forty! A society that treats women’s sexual pleasure as a laugh line isn’t exactly comfortable with the notion.

And for all the script’s progressive lurches — almost entirely coming out of Charlotte’s mouth — it still lets off too easily the proponents of hysteria. It does cop to the fact that the diagnosis was as much a sham as patent medicines were. But instead of screwing it to the wall as a tool of oppression against half the population, it leaves us with the idea that all these women really needed was to get properly laid.

Then again, given the widespread gasps as photos of vintage personal massagers ran alongside the closing credits, maybe the movie does at least provide a tiny bit of historical context that many in the audience haven’t picked up on elsewhere. For all of its problems, we may be so backwards in general that Hysteria still manages to be a net positive.

Worth It: tough call; I’d say no, but many out there might find it enlightening.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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