Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures


Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in "Hysteria," the story of the two men who invented the electronic vibrator. The film opens Friday at the Landmark Downer Theatre.

By - Jun 8th, 2012 04:00 am

I suspect that in the hands of a male director Hysteria would have been hysterical. Please don’t understand that to be a sexist comment. Though, perhaps, it is. It does seek to define a situation based on gender.

At its historical center, Hysteria is about the two men that invented the first electronic vibrator. What is now sold commercially as a “sex toy” was originally a cure for the relatively common female complaint, hysteria. Severe hysteria was “cured” by performing a hysterectomy. Had that practice continued, the film would decidedly have been a drama.

According to the film, which promotes itself as a representation of what actually happened until the invention of this divine apparatus, women with a variety of symptoms were treated by doctors who manually massaged their clitoris and vagina, known as “pelvic massage,” bringing them to orgasm and thus relieving them of some of the stress that was causing their distress. For this particular doctor the repetitious action led to carpal tunnel syndrome, or the late 19th Century version of that malady. Apparently he was not as effective left handed and wore out the right. I hope you can begin to see how there is a pretty hysterical comedy lurking near this story.

Now I realize that orgasms among women are a pretty serious business, as, judging by the good number of middle-aged men seen smiling in television commercials recently, they are among men. But it tends to be one of those personal things that, when you talk about it publicly, it is good to bring your sense of humor.

Director Tanya Wexler has a good sense of humor, but I think someone told her that to be successful, or even to get it made, a film had to have a love story at the center. She balanced Hysteria much more toward the romantic relationship between the doctor and a woman activist, played with wonderful joy by Maggie Gyllenhaal, than she has toward the admittedly obvious comedic proportions of the electric dildo. The film suffers for the focus on what feels like an obligatory love story. Gyllenhaal is good, but Rupert Everett’s role as the wealthy friend of the doctor is brilliant in his restraint and his wit, to say nothing of his business acumen. It is he who brings the doctor and the film to what fulfillment it achieves.

Hysteria opens Friday June 8th at the Landmark Downer Theatre.

Categories: Movies

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