Sometimes you want to watch a film that’s also a movie. You want an opportunity to go into the darkened theater with popcorn and escape into a world of fantasy, and maybe even laugh. Film festivals are usually not big on laughs or escape. Award winning films are serious, reflecting societal ills and angst. This is all to the good. We need authentic, gritty films that speak to the unspeakable and a venue to deliver them to audiences. This year’s Tribeca Film Festival selections deliver the punch. I am very glad I am here but after nine rounds, this blogger aches for a giggle.
I approached Tanya Wexler’s film Hysteria (produced by Sarah Curtis, Judy Cairo and Tracey Becker) with gleeful anticipation. Vibrators in Victorian England. Vibrators disguised as medical tools. Orgasms delivered by doctors massaging women’s clitorises as medical treatment. Now this is the stuff of farce.
Hysteria tells a story based on fact. Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) a young, modern doctor challenges the prevailing views of medicine in 1880 England and is fired from several hospitals. Needing a job, Granville goes to work with Dr. Dalyrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a specialist in “hysteria.” In Victorian England a quarter of the female population were diagnosed with “hysteria” with such symptoms as depression, mood swings, restlessness and other signs of unhappiness. Dr. Dalyrymple treats his female patients with vulvular hand massage until they have an orgasm. Does this sound like soft porn? Au contraire! The doctors and the patients all act as if the treatment has nothing to do with sex. In fact, the doctors complain of exhaustion and suffer from fatigued wrists and hands. (Imagine a nineteenth century version of carpal tunnel syndrome.)
Dr. Granville, with cramped hands, can no longer satisfy his patients and is fired. To overcome his handicap, Granville develops an electrically charged vibrating device that becomes the world’s first electric sex toy. There is also a complicated love story between Granville and Charlotte Dalyrmple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the boss’s oldest daughter. Charlotte is a suffragette. She longs for emancipation and liberation and challenges the strict cultural codes of her time.
Marshall Mc Luhan wrote, “We shape our tools and our tools shape us.” By 1918, the electric vibrator was sold in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue and advertised as “very useful and satisfactory for home service.”
Go see the movie. It is not hysterical but it is quite charming.