We See Chick Flicks: “Hysteria”

Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones, and Rupert Everett

I wanted to love “Hysteria.”  I really did.  It has Maggie Gyllenhaal being her ball-busting feminist self, Hugh Dancy looking adorable, and the entire film is about the invention of my favorite thing on Earth, the vibrator.

But instead of being the kind of kickass film that had me texting my girl friends, You have to see this movie, “Hysteria” turned out to be pretty much be a rom-com that tries, and fails, to do “A Dangerous Method.” And it fails badly.

“Hysteria” is set in 1880s London and stars Hugh Dancy as Dr. Mortimer Granville, a dedicated, passionate young doctor who is fired from his job at a hospital for trying to introduce newfangled practices to cut back on germs. He’s hired at a private practice for Dr. Dalrymple, who practices “women’s medicine.” But Dr. Granville quickly finds out that the cure his boss is using to help women with their “hysteria” — anxiety, sadness and “nymphomania” — is squirting lubricant on his hands and … well … rubbing her clitoris. 

Dr. Granville take prides in his work, second only to his pride in his lovely daughter Emily, played by Felicity Jones, a soft spoken, ladylike English rose being groomed for Victorian-era wifehood. His other daughter, Charlotte, is another story. Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Charlotte is an opinionated, ballsy suffragette who is passionate about educating the poor and empowering all women. Dr. Granville is mortified that his well-educated daughter spends so much time with the dregs of London; in turn, Charlotte rolls her eyes at her father for his “medical treatments,” which she accurately sees as being purely sexual.

“Hysteria” has two plots, really: one is the love triangle between Dr. Granville and the two very different daughters of his boss. But the other plot is how the soreness in his hand — from all that clitoris stroking, you see! — leads him to invent the vibrator.  The scenes with Dr. Granville and his wealthy friend Edmund (Rupert Everett), a tinkerer who is fascinated by electricity, are the best in the film. Learning how early vibrators were built, tested and improved is incredibly fascinating.

The Verdict: To be honest, much about “Hysteria” is profoundly annoying. The stock characters in the film and the lack of imagination that went into their roles bored me. All the poor women in the film are portrayed as victims who need to be “rescued” by rich women like Charlotte and the Dalrymple family housekeeper (a former prostitute who has been “rescued”) makes incessant jokes about blow jobs and is the stock character of a “sexy maid.” Emily is portrayed as the picture of Victorian womanly virtue with absolutely no dimension.  Despite being the true heart of the film, Charlotte’s cuh-razy ideas about educating women and giving them the right to vote is played up as “Gee, golly, isn’t that women’s libber something!” 

Nevertheless, “Hysteria” passes the Bechdel test (the test to see if a film has two or more women who have names and who hold a conversation about something other than a man), although it passes just barely. Charlotte has many conversations with women at the settlement house where she works; her sister Emily discusses her interest in phrenology. And even with the unimaginative stock characters, it’s also noteworthy that both of the lead actresses in this film are portrayed as educated women whose father takes pride in their accomplishments and intelligence (even if it doesn’t agree with how Charlotte uses hers).

“Hysteria” has more problems than virtues, though. I don’t believe the word “orgasm” is used during the entire film — instead, the word “paroxysm” is used. In a rated R movie about the invention of the freaking vibrator, I found this difficult to stomach. The romantic triangle between the lead characters felt contrived. I found it hard to believe that a budding young feminist like Charlotte would fall for the man who seems to love her sister precisely because she’s a doormat. Why didn’t the director think we’d notice Hugh Dancy’s character is actually a prat for most of the movie? Dr. Granville most certainly isn’t Charlotte’s equal. I sat there in the theater thinking, Girl, he may know how to get you off with his hands, but you can do better!

But the film isn’t a complete waste of time. The jokes are funny, the acting is decent (especially by Rupert Everett, whom I love to pieces), and ultimately the film is about the legitimacy of female sexual pleasure, a topic it seems seriously despite the “rom-com” glossy sheen. At least twice in the film — once by Charlotte, once by Dr. Granville  character — we hear a lecture on how women who suffer from “hysteria” are just tense and sexually frustrated because their husbands are not pleasing them.  That’s not something you hear every day in a film!

“Hysteria” is in theaters now.