Director Tanya Wexler is no stranger to the world of Hollywood; as the younger half-sister of Darryl Hannah, she spend some of her formative years on the set of “Blade Runner,” and saw filmmaking from an early age as a viable career path. Fortunately, it’s a path she decided to follow, and with “Hysteria” she’s finally broken into the big time.
“Hysteria’s” premise is enough to incite giggles in even the most cynical of cinema-goers: Hugh Dancy plays Mortimer Granville, an idealistic young doctor in Victorian London who almost by accident invents the world’s first vibrator. Aided by his eccentric dandy friend (Rupert Everett) and glowered at by his old-fashioned boss (Jonathan Pryce), Granville struggles to minister to the throngs of “hysterical” women who show up every day on his clinic’s doorstep, desperate to be relieved of their crushing sexual frustration.
Into the mix comes Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Granville’s boss’s feisty daughter. Consumed with a desire to right society’s wrongs, Charlotte spends her days—and her inheritance—running a shelter and school for poor families near her father’s ritzy clinic. She scoffs at his work, calling his clients spoiled rich ladies and their supposed “hysterical” symptoms an expression of the unfairness of Victorian society. She constantly complains about what she is and isn’t expected to do, as a woman, and while her father is used to her tirades, Granville is equal parts enthralled and terrified by her.
As you’d expect, Granville and Charlotte end up falling in love, and when Charlotte is arrested and put on trial for punching a policeman in the face (with good reason, of course), only Granville has the chutzpah to step up and defend her. Ultimately, he proposes and she accepts, but there is a strong suggestion that theirs will not be a typical Victorian marriage—it certainly doesn’t seem that Charlotte will need any of Granville’s ministrations once they consummate their relationship.
“Hysteria” is supposed to be a slightly naughty romp, and it strikes just the right balance between sight-gag comedy and light social commentary to keep things interesting. There are some wonderful cameos by a pantheon of talented British actresses who play Granville’s frustrated patients, and the scenes during which Granville is forced to minister to these women’s sexless bodies are both extremely funny and slightly shocking; there is a frankness in Wexler’s direction that cuts through her humor, though it never undermines her cheerful, playful tone.
That being said, my only gripe with the film is its lack of serious exploration of the radical disempowerment that women were forced to endure, both inside and outside the bedroom, during this period of British history. Though I realize a big-budget romantic comedy perhaps isn’t the most perfect venue in which to explore these issues and their contemporary iterations—see Mitt Romney’s campaign for examples—nevertheless, I wish Wexler had had the audacity to dig a little deeper into the less funny side of the era she so lovingly chronicles. Still, with such a dearth of female directors in Hollywood these days and such, er, hysteria surrounding any portrayal of female sexuality in mainstream film whatsoever, “Hysteria” is a film worth celebrating on its own terms.
© Lita Robinson 2012
I had the opportunity several weeks ago to sit down with Wexler, Gyllenhaal, and Dancy to discuss their respective takes on “Hysteria.”
Vibrating with excitement, Tanya Wexler could scarcely sit still in her chair for the fifteen minutes or so that she spoke to the press about her new film “Hysteria” on a windy day at the end of March. Questions ranged from themes in her work to the influence of her famous relatives and whether or not her status as a woman (and a lesbian) contributed to her directorial vision in “Hysteria.”
“Identity is interesting to me,” Wexler began, making reference to her two previous directing efforts, “Finding North” (1998) and “Relative Evil” (2001). As a psych major in college, she explained, she had always found the formation of identity a fascinating process, and expressed particular interest in something called “gender schema theory.” Without pausing to explain, however, she rushed on to the next question, her enthusiasm nearly overwhelming the hardened, cynical New York film critics sitting around the room.
How did she feel about the casting of Gyllenhaal as Charlotte? A kindred spirit: “Maggie is the perfect Charlotte!” Wexler gushed, expressing her appreciation for Gyllenhaal’s similar passion for women’s issues. “I had a young Katharine Hepburn in mind, and that’s what Maggie is. She’s a much prettier version of me…I’m a Hermoine Granger! Sometimes I wish I could shut up!” When asked how “Hysteria” would have been different had it been directed by a man, Wexler became unusually pensive (read: quiet) for a moment. “A man could have directed it, sure…but the percption of the film changes if you know it’s a female filmmaker. I had expert knowledge, having been on both sides of the…transaction!” (This got a big laugh from the assembled critics.)
When I asked Wexler how she felt about the film’s relatively soft portrayal of female oppression in Victorian England, she considered the question earnestly: “I didn’t try to make a treatise on feminism,” Wexler replied after a moment’s thought. “I tried to make a romantic comedy. It’s not meant to be a polemic. I didn’t want to rob the audience of having fun! I want it to be fun—both the treatment and the movie! It’s not in the moie’s interest to villify men…there are no victims in the movie. I really like that it’s an empowering narrative.” When asked what she thought of the current state of “women’s films” (fortunately no one uttered the phrase “chick flicks”), Wexler was immediately ready with an answer: “I want there to be more choices for women when it comes to movies—not just ones that have a wedding dress in them!”
When Maggie Gyllenhaal next swept into the room, she looked a little peaked. Doing a full-court-press tour while in the final stages of pregnancy certainly doesn’t sound like fun, but after a couple minutes Gyllenhaal warmed noticeably and treated us to her famous smile. In keeping with her celebrity persona, she revealed herself to be a deeply intellectual woman, ready to branch out the conversation at a moment’s notice to a series social issues in which she’s passionately invested and well-read; education reform, women’s rights, sex-positivity.
When the first question, “What attracts you to sexual roles?”, came flying at her, Gyllenhaal replied without raising an eyebrow: “Isn’t everyone interested in sexuality?” A wave of giggles broke the tension. Her frankness carried through the rest of the interview, as the assembled critics asked a series of what might have been provocative questions, had they been directed at someone less self-possessed and comfortable with her body of work (her breakout role in 2003′s “Secretary” came up several times, as did her incredibly raw performance in 2006′s “Sherrybaby”). “Sex has been explored in film in a way that’s very unreal,” Gyllenhaal stated; “It’s a kind of subtle feminism to express it from a woman’s point of view, what it’s actually like.” She expressed contempt for the typical Hollywood treatment of sex—all black lingerie and “perfect lighting and arching your back.”
Her interest in playing Charlotte in “Hysteria,” she explained, wasn’t to create a perfectly accurate piece of historical fiction: “I don’t think the film is served by a historically accurate depiction—it’s more served by my being as wild as possible.” Acknowledging that she seems to be on Hollywood’s list of go-to actresses for “strong female roles,” Gyllenhaal nonetheless lamented the dearth of “good movies being made these days,” particularly those starring strong female characters. While she acknowledged enjoying the wildness of her earlier, more provocative performances, she expressed pleasure at her recent turn toward playing characters who display a “different kind of subtlety…gentler characters,” though she acknowledged also that she loved Charlotte’s fiery disposition: “She could have been a friend of mine.”
Gyllenhaal’s parting shot was to hop briefly on her education policy soapbox: a good education in this country is “essential,” she stated, “otherwise you’re choosing your president based on his hairdo!” Mitt Romney, consider yourself on notice.
To get into the same room with dashing Brit Hugh Dancy—who’s absolutely as gorgeous in person as he is on the screen—you have to be prepared to squish yourself onto a folding chair in a far-flung corner and practically jump up and down to get a question in. Despite the critics’ obvious lust for him, Dancy was poised—and slightly gruff—seated at a huge conference table with a forest of microphones set up in front of him. Whereas Wexler and Gyllenhaal had been interviewed in a casual, accessible atmosphere, Dancy was very much set up by his PR representatives as a quintessential Celebrity. It was hard not to read at least some level of sexism into this, in light of the subject matter of “Hysteria,” but I digress.
“There’s a long gag reel for this film,” Dancy began. “She [Wexler] ran a very happy set.” When asked about his favorite aspect of the film’s period setting, he stated, “the stiffness, the formality…undercutting that with a raucous aspect, I enjoyed that.” Balancing these two aspects of the narrative, Dancy went on, was one of the main things that drew him to the role in the first place. When asked how he shot the film’s giggle-inducing orgasm scenes, he replied simply, “We used a sandbag.” Despite his readiness to discuss “Hysteria’s” overt sexuality, and that of his smash Broadway hit “Venus in Fur,” Dancy nonetheless expressed doubt that sex would become less of a forbidden subject in American film anytime soon. “It’s a taboo, a very strange taboo. People are very squeamish about it. What was fresh about this [“Hysteria”] was that it was trying to cover more ground. If it had just been comedic, I’d have been reluctant to do it.”
“It’s a completely spurious diagnosis,” Dancy stated, when asked his opinion on the concept of hysteria itself. “This is pre-Freud, but as it turns out his diagnosis [of hysteria] was spurious as well. Men had figured out that women could enjoy sex—people like Byron had sorted it out.” This drew a general laugh from everyone.
“Maggie’s so strong as an actress,” Dancy said, when asked how he enjoyed working with his famous co-star. “Her commitment to her character is remarkable—the degree to which she maintained her English accent is astonishing. It was immaculate, it was very good—she maintained it throughout the day,” even in between takes, he revealed. (For the record, it really was very good—a welcome change from, say, Keira Knightley’s bizarre take on Russian accents in “A Dangerous Method,” another period piece about sex.)
“It’s surprising what a crowd pleaser this film turned out to be,” Dancy said in closing, “and not just in a nervous, naughty giggle type of way.” When asked if he had any problem with the film being referred to at several festivals as “the vibrator movie,” Dancy deadpanned, “That was the appeal.”
“Hysteria” will be is in wide release as of May 18th.