Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 18, 2012 7:37 am 
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Women in need of stimulation

In Hysteria, using a screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, Tanya Wexler has taken the story of the Victorian-era invention of the electronic dildo, a landmark in product development and women's control over their own pleasure, and turned it into a wink-wink romantic comedy featuring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Report has it that Sara Ruhl's play The Next Room a year or so earlier took the same topic, setting events in America, not England, and made something much more subtle and intelligent about it. Wexler instrad goes for easy laughs and audience-pandering. Hysteria's treatment of the mind-bogglingly off-kilter attitudes toward women's sexuality held in the West in the late nineteenth century is disappointingly superficial. The film provides easy, glossy entertainment. Sets and costumes are good, and the cast, though largely wasted, includes, besides Hugh and Maggie, the likes of Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett, Jonathan Pryce and Gemma Jones, who deliver acting of quality even if they don't get to do much of interest. But important changes in human self-knowledge are turned into the story of how a London couple used the marketing of an electronic stimulator to find romance and build up a charity settlement house. The audience loves it. Not the critics, though. This film opened in France last December and no reviewer had anything good to say about it. Costumed anachronisms don't fly so well where people have a sense of history. (The French title is-- double-entendre perhaps? -- Oh My God!)

In the film, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy) is a talented young doctor who keeps getting fired because he so strongly advocates modern hygiene and germ theory. He winds up working for Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Pryce), who treats "hysteria" -- basically sexual frustration and attendant psychological discomfort -- by manipulating women behind puppet-show curtains till they reach orgasm. This is purely clinical, of course, and he believes women don't feel sexual pleasure. It's called a "paroxysm." The women flock to him on a regular basis, so he needs an assistant, and Granville is soon up to be his partner, successor, and to marry his favorite daughter, the prim, demure Emily (Felicity Jones) But in the background is his obstreperous, annoyingly suffragette older daughter, Charlotte (Gyllenhaal, having a great time but overacting extravagantly), who is, obviously, going to win Granville's heart because she's more interesting, and carries the film's (unnecessary) social reform subplot about funding a settlement house -- which her father strongly opposes.

This plotting creaks but the scenes of the posh middle-aged women coming in to be serviced are mind-bending. Did this really happen? The related cluelessness about sex is interesting but too little contemplated here. Things relax and become more droll whenever Rupert Everett is onscreen as Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe, Granville's (vaguely gay) very rich roommate, son of his lifelong benefactors and an inveterate dabbler in new inventions involving machinery and electricity. It's his creation of a motorized feather duster that will lead -- according to this fanciful version -- to the first electric portable vibrator when Granville discovers cranking up the voltage on the feather duster soothes his carpel tunnel syndrome from giving women "patients" so many hand-jobs.

All this sounds better than it is. The rom-com action, Gyllenhaal's overacting, the irrelevant settlement house subplot, and the simplistic audience pandering all get in the way of what might have been an enlightening and wonderfully strange story. At the end the credits hint that Queen Victoria herself might have become a client of the wildly popular new invention that made Lord St. John-Smythe and Granville rich, and as details of cast and crew roll we get to see models of vibrators up through to recent decades, with their colorful names. But the story of a cultural phenomenon and complex changes in attitude to sex and women are blurred by the "delightful" screenplay. Variety's prediction is this film will fade quickly unless it earns unwarranted "sleeper success." Lukewarm reviews seem likely in the US. A waste of good production values and a talented cast.

Hysteria debuted at Toronto and released in many countries in late 2011 and early 2012. It is a part of the San Francisco International Film Festival and comes to US theaters May 18, 2012. SFIFF showings were May 1 and 3, 2012.

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