Santa Cruz Good Times

Apr 17th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

The Story of O

film hysteria250Uneven, yet entertaining vibrator comedy ‘Hysteria’ hits the spot

Fact and fiction make strange bedfellows in the Victorian-era costume comedy, Hysteria. Well, to be more truthful, they share barely a nodding acquaintance. But while the story and characters in this cheeky comedy about the invention of the first electronic vibrator are almost completely fabricated, director Tanya Wexler’s occasionally uncertain, yet entertaining film deftly captures late 19th Century attitudes toward women and female sexuality.

Wexler and scriptwriters Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer cheerfully manipulate facts to make a better story. But absolute historical accuracy is hardly their goal. Instead, they create a fantasia on the idea of the vibrator, and its potential function as a revolutionary tool for women attempting to claim some shred of selfhood in an era entirely dominated by male authority. (In the film, the development of vibrator technology is linked to the budding suffragist movement.) Along the way, despite a few too many double-entendres and overly-pat feminist speeches, Hysteria provides a quaint and alarming glimpse into a historical moment of epic male/female misunderstanding.

Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a forward-thinking young physician in 1880 London who believes that invisible germs cause disease, leeches are detrimental to health, and patent medicines are “poppycock!” These radical ideas have gotten him sacked from every hospital and dispensary in the city by the time he fetches up on the doorstep of Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a physician in private practice whose patients are exclusively genteel, upper-middle-class ladies.

Confessing to varieties of nervous expectation, unnamed longing, and/or “distracting thoughts,” these women are quickly diagnosed with “hysteria,” due to what Dalrymple calls “an overactive uterus.” The treatment requires the doctor to place a well-oiled digit into the patient’s private parts (discreetly cloaked behind a red velvet drape), and massage until a physical “paroxysm” is achieved. Since medical science (and men in general) dismiss women as incapable of arousal or orgasm, the practice is not considered sexual. But the women know better; Dr. Dalrymple’s waiting room is always so full that Granville, his new assistant, begins to develop debilitating hand cramps.

Dalrymple also steers Granville into an “understanding” with his dutiful, decorous younger daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones), with a view toward taking over the practice, one day. Dalrymple’s elder , black-sheep daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a bicycle-riding, wisecracking Socialist who runs a settlement house for prostitutes and the poor. She befuddles Granville, until he discovers what a skillful and caring doctor she is in her own right (she too believes in germs). Her poor clients at the settlement house “only get food and laundry,” she tells Granville. “But I get a useful life.”

It’s not difficult to see how the romantic story will play out. In the meantime, Rupert Everett pops up to offer droll comic support as Granville’s wealthy friend and benefactor, Edmund St. John-Smythe, who dabbles in electronics and installs a newfangled telephone. Edmund sympathizes with Granville’s quest to restore vitality to his overworked hand. (“I’m told the French have a lot of success using their tongues,” he deadpans, making this unapologetic “sexual deviant” —ie: he’s gay—the only male in the story who actually gets what’s going on.) Edmund’s experiment in building an electronic feather duster serves as the inspiration for Granville’s first “electro-mechanical” vibrator.

Wexler’s light touch is generally the film’s saving grace, although some jokes work better than others. But her subtext is absolutely serious, the appalling cluelessness of males who think women less human than themselves (incapable of sexual pleasure), in an era when the accepted solution to “incurable” hysteria was enforced hysterectomy.

In real life, a Dr. Mortimer Granville did invent the vibrator ca. 1880, but he was nearly 50 at the time, married, and he railed against its “improper” use by women. Everything else here (except those hand cramps) is entertaining fiction (including the strapless gown Charlotte wears to a ball, in which no lady, however liberated, would ever dare appear in Victorian society).
film hysteria
But the film is excruciatingly accurate depicting images of real-life vibrators, from fearsome to playful, during the closing credits—a history lesson well worth sticking around for.


★★★ (out of four)
Watch film trailer >>>

With Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Rupert Everett. Written by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer. Directed by Tanya Wexler. A Sony Pictures Classics release. (R) 100 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger


Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share


Growing Hope

Campos Seguros combats sexual assault in the Watsonville farmworker community Farm work was a way of life for Rocio Camargo, who grew up in Watsonville as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her parents met while working the fields 30 years ago, and her father went on to run Fuentes Berry Farms.


Cardinal Grand Cross in the Sky

Following Holy Week (passion, death and burial of the Pisces World Teacher) and Easter Sunday (Resurrection Festival), from April 19 to the 23, the long-awaited and discussed Cardinal Cross of Change appears in the sky, composed of Cardinal signs Aries, Libra, Cancer, and Capricorn, with planets (13-14 degrees) Uranus (in Aries), Jupiter (in Cancer), Mars (in Libra) and Pluto (in Capricorn), an actual geometrical square or cross configuration. Cardinal signs mark the seasons of change, initiating new realities.


Sugar: The New Tobacco?

Proposed bill would require warning labels on sugary drinks Will soda and other saccharine libations soon come with a health warning? They will if it’s up to our state senator, Bill Monning (D-Carmel). On Feb. 27, Monning proposed first-of-its-kind legislation that would require a consumer warning label be placed on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California. SB 1000, also known as the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, was proposed to provide vital information to consumers about the harmful effects of consuming sugary drinks, such as sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas.


Film, Times & Events: Week of April 17

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Tomorrow's Good Times Today
Upcoming arts & events

Latest Comments


Foodie File: Red Apple Cafe

Breakfast takes center stage at Gracia Krakauer's Red Apple Cafe Before they moved to Aptos, Gracia and her husband Dan Krakauer would visit friends in Santa Cruz County and eat at the Red Apple Café all the time. Then they moved up here from Santa Monica five years ago, and bought the Aptos location (there’s a separate one in Watsonville) from the family who owned it for two decades.


How would you feel about a tech industry boom in Santa Cruz?

I feel like it would ruin the small old-town feeling of Santa Cruz. It wouldn’t be the same Surf City kind of vacation town that it is. Antoinette BennettSanta Cruz | Construction Management


Best of Santa Cruz County

The 2013 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll and Critics’ Picks It’s our biggest issue of the year, and in it, your votes—more than 6,500 of them—determined the winners of The Best of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll. New to the long list of local restaurants, shops and other notables that captured your interest: Best Beer Selection, Best Locally Owned Business, Best Customer Service and Best Marijuana Dispensary. In the meantime, many readers were ever so chatty online about potential new categories. Some of the suggestions that stood out: Best Teen Program and Best Web Design/Designer. But what about: Dog Park, Church, Hotel, Local Farm, Therapist (I second that!) or Sports Bar—not to be confused with Bra. Our favorite suggestion: Best Act of Kindness—one reader noted Café Gratitude and the free meals it offered to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the aftermath of recent crimes. Perhaps some of these can be woven into next year’s ballot, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy the following pages and take note of our Critics’ Picks, too, beginning on page 91. A big thanks for voting—and for reading—and an even bigger congratulations to all of the winners. Enjoy.  -Greg Archer, EditorBest of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll INDEX


Trout Gulch Vineyards

Cinsault 2012—la grande plage diurne The most popular wines on store shelves are those most generally known and available—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are all superb for sure. But when you come across a more unusual varietal, like Trout Gulch Vineyards’ Cinsault ($18), it opens up a whole new world.