“Hysteria” Premiere at SF Film Fest–We Were There!
A film premiere can be big fun, no matter what’s onscreen — all those upturned faces poised to see something brand new — but some of the Good Vibrations staff had an especially great time last week when Tanya Wexler’s new movie Hysteria hit the screen at the San Francisco International Film Festival. We’d been waiting for this movie with bated breath, not least because it offers an HistoricalBritPic-type of representation of the invention of the electric vibrator. That’s right — the story of us, in a way! And it’s timed perfectly with the opening of our beautiful new Antique Vibrator Museum — in fact, some of the vibes from the Good Vibrations collection play starring roles decorating the credits. So we were all very excited to go.
Plus, two words: Maggie Gyllenhaal!
Jackie and I had shown director Wexler around the Antique Vibrator Museum that afternoon — it was great to meet her and hear some of the backstory of the film. After a dinner break, everyone convened at the beautiful Sundance theatre; I grabbed a front-row center balcony seat and settled in to watch history unfold.
Now, as Rachel Maines writes in her terrific book The Technology of Orgasm, the vibrator that we know today developed as the culmination of hundreds of years of medical treatment for a condition called hysteria — the most successful treatment involved clitoral and vulva massage, culminating in an “hysterical paroxysm.” This took a long time, though — some of the funniest scenes in Hysteria show this dilemma in action — and doctors were eager to embrace the technological marvel, originally invented by one Mortimer Granville, which got the job done so much more efficiently. Hysteria, in fact, is sort of a speculative biopic of Granville; the movie does not at all hew to the actual details of the real Granville’s life, instead using his name and his association with the vibrator to spin a by turns moving and amusing story — a full-on romantic comedy, in fact — with enough actual history to make it as informative as it is engaging.
So Granville (Hugh Dancy) — a young, idealistic doctor whose embrace of the then radically newfangled germ theory keeps getting him sacked from hospital after hospital — winds up in the practice of established older physician Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Dalrymple’s sole specialty is the treatment of hysteria, and he’s prepared to transition his practice — and the hand of his lovely daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) — to Granville.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Dalrymple’s older daughter Charlotte, the black sheep of the family — a socially engaged feminist and anti-poverty crusader. Her father thinks she’s got hysteria and doesn’t want to fund her activist project, a settlement house.
No spoilers from me — but suffice it to say that when a Victorian-era film gives us a bicycle-riding, fierce social activist and a crusading doctor who’s on the verge of settling for an easy life, the plot will thicken.
The other important element of Hysteria is Granville’s relationship with his aristocratic friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), the creative brain behind the invention that Granville repurposes to create the vibrator. Everett is perfectly cast and delightfully eccentric, near the top of a class divide that gives him time, talent and resources — and that threatens to crush Charlotte’s charges at the settlement house.
Really, the topic underpinning Hysteria is the time period of its setting: the late nineteenth century in Britain, with all the massive social changes then underway. Between advances in technology, class divisions, changes in medicine and other scientific knowledge, and seismic shifts in the roles of women and men, the film — with a light touch — shows the playing-out of cultural changes that ushered in the 20th century, when women got their hands on vibrators and hysteria as a disease model faded into the history books.