Monday, June 25, 2012

Hysteria (2012)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

I don't know about you guys but we just had a pretty crazy heat wave in the Northeast and I don't have air conditioning, so get ready for several upcoming new release reviews, for once, since I did my best to be inside of cool buildings. Hysteria was first on my list of things to see after hearing its praises sung by Joanna on the Matineecast. Based on the real events surrounding the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s, the film follows young Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a struggling doctor who finds himself without a job time and time again as he attempts to combat his superiors' antiquated ways of thinking about health practices and, especially, germs (which totally exist!). He gets a position with Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who primarily treats wealthy women in various stages of "hysteria" (also totally a real thing, hello!) with what he believes is re-aligning the uterus into its proper place, but actually amounts to vaginal massage. Granville takes over his duties and, after his hand consistently cramps up, he looks for a new way to perform the procedure. Dalrymple's free-spirited daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), meanwhile, interrupts his quiet life with frequent proclamations of feminism and helping the poor and other wacky notions.

Structured as a period romantic comedy, Hysteria manages to delightfully entertain while it subtly works in somewhat subversive elements about female sexuality. It's laced with the rom-com stereotypes: Oh no the dude somehow runs into the lady and falls on top of her, how awkward ha ha! You think he's in love with the lady he gets along with but actually he loves the one who bickers with him! Wow! Its tone remains lighthearted for most of its runtime, converting ideas that are in many ways still controversial and taboo into a digestible format. First we laugh at how stupid these old-timey male doctors are for not believing in germs and for thinking "hysteria" is a real thing, then we realize that they don't even know about female orgasms. The amount of stupidity in the main male characters is hilarious, and it's nice to see that the jokes are on the men for once. While dissatisfied women in the film slyly take advantage of Dr Dalrymple's cracked theories so that they can have weekly sexual fulfillment, women in the audience nod in understanding and shake our heads at the doctor's cluelessness.

I hadn't seen Hugh Dancy in too much but I found myself enjoying him a lot here, mostly because with the sideburns he looked like Hugh Jackman (is it a "Hugh" thing?). Most of the film is from his point of view, which is always interesting for a romantic comedy. As Dr Granville he's this mixture of dopey and passionate that makes him likable despite being an idiot and sexist. Jonathan Pryce is excellent as always, his character flawed for many of the same reasons as Granville but more hard-headed and dickish. Maggie Gyllenhaal is fiery and fun-loving, out of place in the time period but so awesome it doesn't matter. They are surrounded by a host of excellent supporting castmembers, from Felicity Jones as Charlotte's prim and proper (and phrenologist lol) sister to Ashley Jensen as her lower-class friend. Rupert Everett shows up for several enjoyable scenes as a wealthy "bachelor" (read: homosexual) obsessed with electrical inventions, who actually constructs the vibrator device.

Hysteria is primarily a silly romantic comedy with gorgeous period costumes, but the filmmakers smartly work in commentary about female bodies and historical sexism that still resonates today. It is rather formulaic in its storytelling and I got sick of the amount of orgasms played for laughs (the opera thing was overkill, really), but overall I liked it a lot. It's not extremely progressive but it's nice to see this kind of story given a female perspective. Also it's cool that I got to talk about vaginal stimulation in a film review (FINALLY).

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I thought about A Dangerous Method since that features more awesome costumes and weird ideas about lady problems. At times it also reminded me of The Road to Wellville.

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