Bad Vibes, by David Bax
Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria is a film about a moment in time that is, in retrospect, a milestone in the development of personal sexual freedom for women. Specifically, it is about the invention of the vibrator. At the time, though, the device was hardly seen as a tool for liberation and agency over one’s own body. Rather, it was invented to aid the treatment of the titular medical diagnosis, a condescending catch-all that was said to account for any number of everyday symptoms from which a woman might suffer, from nervousness to irritability to loss of appetite. The method of the day called for a doctor to manually massage the woman’s genitals until she experience a “paroxysm,” an event for which we use a different word today. The vibrator simply made such procedures simpler for the doctor. So it came to be that a device that has been held up as a symbol of female empowerment was invented in the interest of simplifying and dismissing the complexities of femininity. Unfortunately, Wexler shows absolutely no interest in exploring that rich irony and has instead made an inanely unoriginal and safe movie.
Hugh Dancy plays Dr. Mortimer Granville, who takes a position as assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who specializes solely in the treatment of hysteria. At first, Dalrymple thinks highly of Granville and expresses his desire for his daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones), to be married to the young man. But then Granville gets carpal tunnel or something from rubbing women’s clitorises all day and is unable to bring them to paroxysm so Dalrymple gets mad at him. To fix the problem, Granville, with the help of his eccentric, rich friend, Edmund (Rupert Everett) invents the vibrator. While all this is going on, Granville has begun a rivalry/friendship with Dalrymple’s other daughter, the brash and independent Charlotte, (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is just so unconventional and outspoken, well, it’s simply scandalous. In any case, she deplores her father’s practice and, since Granville works there, obviously these two will never get together.
Far more annoying than the lack of imagination in the story is the characterization of Charlotte. She is too representative of the audience to make sense in the film’s 1880 setting. It might have been more believable if, at the movie’s end, Charlotte said, “Well, I’ve enlightened everyone and now my work here is done,” then stepped into a time machine and whooshed away back to her home in the future (spoiler alert: that is not what happens).
If only the film had immersed us into the Victorian era and gained our sympathies for the people of the time, it could have been interesting. If we had been invited to understand the mode of thought in 1880 – to empathize with the way men felt about women and the way women felt about themselves before Charlotte came in to question things – instead of asking us only to laugh at the silliness of these relics from an alien past, Hysteria could have been worthwhile.
Sadly for us, though, Wexler and the screenwriters are content to make a bad, fluffy, broad comedy. The nadir of this groan-worthy nature comes when a woman, one of Dalrymple’s patients undergoing her first vibrator treatment, begins to belt out sustained, high pitch notes at the moment of orgasm. Only Everett elicits laughs but even he is saddled with playing a role that is essentially the stereotypical gay best friend who sits around in different poses and makes catty comments.
The invention of the vibrator and the roots of its eventual standard use is an attention-grabbing premise but Wexler, at every turn, fails to live up to the potential. Instead of a salacious scandal, Hysteria is deadly dull.