As you’re getting comfy, ready to watch Hysteria—while the music is playing and production credits are fading in and out—the following words appear onscreen: “This story is based on true events.” There is a brief pause, and then: “Really.” I love that opening, just as I love this film: it is tongue in cheek, a little wink-wink nudge-nudge at history. Hysteria, you see, is a film about the invention of the vibrator.
There are parts of this story—true parts—that could be told through the voice of female fury and indignation. But no—this story is a lighthearted look at female pleasure and the medical and political firestorms that have always surrounded it. It is a film that fits its subject—full of double entendre, with a passionate woman at its center.
Maggie Gyllenhaall, who plays Charlotte Dalrymple, absolutely makes this movie. Charlotte is the rebellious daughter of Dr. Robert Dalrymple, whose medical specialty is treating women diagnosed with hysteria. The diagnosis (and hysteria itself, which eventually became a catchall term for female discontent) is undoubtedly sexual. Women come to Dr. Dalrymple to unload the emotional burdens of nineteenth-century British womanhood, and they find solace in clitoral stimulation. It is all very medical, you know.
At least, that’s how the good doctor sees it. Charlotte disagrees vehemently. She spends her days helping at a clinic for poor women and children where she keeps company with former prostitutes, much to her father’s dismay. Charlotte is outspoken about women’s rights and female sexuality. Although her opinions often get her into trouble, she delivers her lines with humor and faith rather than anger and self-righteousness. Charlotte knows she’s right, and that history will have to catch up.
Although Charlotte is at the center of this film, neither the movie nor the vibrator would exist without Dr. Mortimer Granville, played by Hugh Dancy. Dr. Granville joins Dr. Dalrymple’s practice and learns the tricks of the trade from the elder doctor. Mortimer is an earnest, bright young man who wants to make his mark in medicine by keeping up with the latest developments, and he throws himself into this new work. But within a few weeks, the poor man’s hand cramps from all that medical stimulation he’s providing. In one of my favorite scenes, Mortimer’s best friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe (played by Rupert Everett), discusses the situation with him.
As they are descending the stairs outside Edmund’s home, Edmund says, “Mortimer, must you wear that ghastly hand brace?”
“I must find some way to attend to these women properly,” replies Mortimer.
Edmund’s reply: “I believe the French have had quite a bit of luck using their tongues.”
This is only one of Edmund’s hilarious lines. He, along with Charlotte, understands what the good doctors do not: women experience and enjoy sexual pleasure, and cooking and cleaning and raising kids all day while being treated as a second-class citizen is just not sexy. This is the real problem behind the “medical” diagnosis of hysteria.
Fortunately for women—and men too, if you think about it—Mortimer listens to his good friend Edmund, who is both rich and brilliant, and loves to tinker with new inventions. The two friends put their heads together, and voila, the vibrator is born!
I’ll leave the rest of the film for you to discover—there is some romance, some confusion, and some general all-around fun that you don’t wanna miss. Save this movie for some night when the kids are in bed and you’ve had a glass of wine—it’ll be much better if you’re in the mood.