Sunday, May 27, 2012

Film Review: Hysteria

Hysteria is a tongue-in-cheek, heftily innuendoed Victorian sex comedy loosely based on the events leading up to the invention of the vibrator.

It extols great efforts to place a succinct and believable world wherein women were treated with misunderstanding and true bafflement by posh British physicians who labelled anything from anxiety to loss of appetite as hysterical and, thus, a feminine problem mostly diagnosed in housewives that need to be cured by massage, oils and, in extreme cases, sanitariums and hysterectomies.  

Mortimer Granville (the dashing young Hugh Dancy) is a handsome and well-read young physician who is seen flitting from one job to another when his backward employers still find solace in primitive medical efforts including leeches and bleeding. Granville believes in the recent scientific theories surrounding germs and sanitation and is seen as heretic by many more prominent doctors with more experience.  He mopes to his long suffering friend Edmund St. John Smythe ( the equally dashing Rupert Everett) about his convictions to his Hippocratic oath and how he largely wants to do good in the world and live up to his passion and education.   He finally lands at the door of women's physician Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who spends his days providing comfort for his upper middle class house wife patients by "curing" them of their hysteria. Once a week he provides comforting massages barricaded from view by a sumptuous red curtain and the women are momentarily relaxed from his useless diagnosis and medical treatment.  Believing he will do good and impressed by the dutiful beauty of Dalrymple's gorgeous daughter Emily ( Felicity Jones ), Granville becomes a live-in resident.

His handsome stature and apparent skill with massage make him very popular and the practice is booming.  So much so that the young doctor develops carpal tunnel syndrome ( as of then undiagnosed).  His routine only slightly varied by the willful and excessively volatile nature of Dalrymple's oldest daughter, vocal suffragette Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall).  Perplexed by Charlotte's conviction to the unfortunate and her squandering her lady like duty of finding a husband in exchange for long hours working at a sort of community centre which houses meek and lowly women and provides health and education to young unfortunate children, Granville sees in this spirited fire-cracker the innate passion he knows he should have and a purely charitable core.

When Smythe unintentionally invents a vibrating feather duster that saves time and energy in curing women of their hysterical ails, unprecedented fame comes to Dr. Dalrymple and Granville and Granville finds his heart wandering from the perfect angel of hearth and domesticity, Emily, to her brasher and more interesting sister.

This film was mostly interesting for its inclusion of a baffling history wherein the medical practice seemed to completely misunderstand female health and, more devastatingly, did seeming nothing to ensure they were making advances.  Sanitariums and hysterectomies seemed an all-encompassing cure for the plagues of female illness and, according to the film and the limitation of women's rights and voices, a way to silence women who may only have been speaking out of dissatisfaction and or normal anxious states.

At this point in history, women were not known to derive any pleasure from sexual acts; nor were they supposed to so the paroxysms (or modern orgasms, as we know them ) when experienced were very incidental and by-the-way.  Contrast this methodology and medical discovery with the raging voice of women like Charlotte: a sort of proto-suffragette and emblem of skepticism and disbelief at the lack of control and choice she had over her body and you have an interesting paradox of good intentions versus severe male-dominated ignorance.

At one pivotal point in Granville and Charlotte's well-meted and perfectly executed relationship, Granville mentions that Charlotte is at time's complimentary and at others disagreeable and hostile and Charlotte laughs and proudly pronounces that she is a woman: inclined to remain an enigma to the male sphere.  Rather than shy from the winning puzzle, we see Granville slowly become attracted to an idea of an equal partnership and not the patriarchal role so carefully patented with a winsome, docile female and a standard private practice.

I encourage women to read more about the ways in which our medical rights were skewed by male research and experimentation for centuries--- and up to at least the 1950s (when the last medical diagnosis of hysteria was made) .   We have come a long way and we cannot be ignorant of the many women who suffered due to ignorance and misunderstanding.  Women are multi-faceted and beguiling and, it seems, as in several cases like this particular historical moment that rather than attempt to unravel the mystery and service the rights of women it was far more common and a lot easier to lump sum all of the dichotomous and multi-faceted moments, passions and emotions with a single word, a single case, a single (and misguided) cure.

No comments: