I was thrilled I was getting to see the big mainstream film about vibrators (Hysteria, Sony Classics) as a centerpiece of the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival. Starring Maggie Gyllenhall, whose star turns since Secretary have had her pegged as the actress lady on the side of sex-positive, sex-powered women, I knew Hysteria was going to be a film for all of us, and for the ages.
The trailer, after all, is wonderfully naughty and hilarious. A costume drama rom-com about vibrators and ladygasms? What could possibly go wrong?
Which is all why I’m still a little stunned as to how such an interesting and entertaining story, with such gifted performers, could turn out so bad.
Set in Victorian London, out of work doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) finds a job in a private practice under the tutelage of older doc Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Granville soon finds that he’s required to administer Dr. Dalrymple’s unorthodox treatments to lessen the symptoms of hysteria among his numerous female patients – a labor-intensive patient-by-patient manual labor job.
Now, of course the in-joke is that hysteria was the medical diagnosis for a variety of symptoms as applied to women for, well, basically being women. Medical science of the time did not consider female genitalia capable of experiencing pleasure, and so when proper married women would act strange or exhibit various ills, they could be diagnosed with hysteria and locked up, given hysterectomies, or treated by massage to “hysterical paroxysm.”
I’m guessing that too many women had this “problem” stemming from their nethers to all be locked up or butchered. At any rate, some docs would give weekly treatments to ladies; they would jack the women off. The brilliant thing about this from a business perspective is that the patients would both never get truly sick, nor would they ever get “better.” And so a cottage industry was born.
Unfortunately, an in-joke isn’t enough to sustain a feature film, but that’s exactly what happens here.
As it turns out (in the film, anyway), Dr. Dalrymple has two daughters – and one slutty prostitute redheaded maid. One daughter is good and dresses in white; the other is Maggie Gyllenhaal. The good daughter is the snare for Dr. Mortimer’s attractions, while the bad daughter – as we learn in what feels like hours and hours of intercut scenes – works at a shelter for the poor. Her dad hates her philanthropy and wants to cut her off for not being a proper lady (etc. etc.), and the slutty maid fulfills our negative expectations of sex workers as repurposed household help (while reinforcing that Dr. Mortimer is a “good” man when he denies her offer of a cheap suck.)
You can probably fill in the rest – a film this predictable simply has no spoilers. The cute young doc is popular and his hands get tired. His quirky tech-loving pal (Rupert Everett) works with him to make a vibrator as a labor-saving device – which we were obviously and annoyingly foreshadowed in then film’s first scenes.
They test it on the whore, of course – and if you’re thinking that “testing” and the scenes of lady-massage might be salacious, then you’ll be as amazed as I was to see fake orgasms so in-jokey faked that they made Jenna Jameson’s worst squeals seem Oscar-worthy.
Hysteria attempts to deliver a fun and enlightening story about a truly bizarre set of historical events. Unfortunately, it doesn’t – and misleads the audience into thinking that this is the true birth of the vibrator. It’s not – doctors had been hating on giving women clinical orgasms long before electricity was in homes and businesses, and there were institutions that had steam-powered vibrators. (I know – is this hot, or scary?)
What Hysteria ends up doing is making a really interesting story into a totally boring one. It accomplishes this by painfully spoon-feeding the audience everything (including with music to tell us when something is “funny”). Worse, talents like Maggie Gyllenhaal are left twisting in the wind of a horrible script, terrifyingly mundane narrative arc, one-dimensional characters and the film’s overall point, which seems to lecture the audience about things we’re already in agreement with. If you’d seen Gyllenhaal only in this film, you would think she is not a very good actress.
My rating for Hysteria is 2/10 = would not bang.