The buzz about Tanya Wexler’s “Hysteria”

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Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sees signs of success in “Hysteria” (All film images courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Tanya Wexler admits it’s hard to keep a straight face when talking about her movie “Hysteria.”

“The puns are numerous and I go headlong into them,” she said when she visited the MPR studio recently.

Why? Well, her film is a romantic period comedy about the machine which she says was granted just the third ever patent for an electrical device, and has been sold ever since as a “muscle relaxer.”

She got the idea from a producer friend who turned up at her doorstep and announced she had the perfect topic for her next film.

“She said ‘It’s a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England,’and I laughed and I said, ‘No, really. What’s it about?’ And she said, “No, really!’ And I said ‘That’s amazing. You are absolutely right!'” Wexler recalled.

Despite said device’s long history, and wide use, it’s still not considered a polite topic of conversation in many places, which Wexler admits made the movie a tough sell. She spent a long time getting the tone right in the script: bawdy but not puerile, entertainingly informative but not lecturing.

It took seven years from that initial conversation to the point now when the movie, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett and Jonathan Pryce, is opening in the Twin Cities.

“It was really, really tricky,” Wexler said. “I don’t know why really because (the movie’s) fairly innocent. Truthfully, there is no bad language, there is no nudity. The women are wearing hats for God’s sakes!”

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Tanya Wexler in the MPR studios (MPR photo/Euan Kerr)

The story revolves around on Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy,) a forward thinking young physician in London in the 1880’s who keeps losing his job for insisting things like germs exist, or that many patent medicines prescribed by his bosses are quackery.

He is very pleased to get a job as an assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Pryce) who has an extraordinarily successful clinic treating what was then known as hysteria. It was a catch-all diagnosis only applied to women which covered everything from headaches and cramps to depression.

“I say it was a diagnosis for the condition of being a woman, and some of our characters say that possibly half the women in London at the time were effected,” Wexler said.

Hysteria, which was believed to originate in the female reproductive system, was taken very seriously and in some cases was used as an excuse for confinement, hysterectomy, and even lobotomy. However in the movie Dr Dalrymple is an exponent of a simpler, hands-on approach which Wexler said many clinics offered at the time to deal with what we would now recognize as sexual frustration.

“They would do ‘manual massage to paroxysm,’ as they called it,” she said.

According to Wexler it wasn’t considered sexual as most doctors seriously believed women were incapable of sexual response.

“Hysteria” follows young Granville’s initial meteoric success at the clinic. Yet his life is soon complicated by the attentions of his boss’s two daughters.

There’s Emily (Jones) a demure young woman and enthusiastic phrenologist who believes she can predict a person’s lot in life through feeling the bumps on their head. There’s also Charlotte (Gyllenhaal) a headstrong activist who dedicates her life to caring for the needy at a nearby settlement house. It has to be said that as advanced as Granville’s medical thinking may be, when it comes to other matters he is very much in the Victorian mold. He quickly finds himself engaged to Emily but fascinated by Charlotte.

“I made somehow a feminist romantic comedy about a guy at the center,” Wexler laughed. “I don’t know how I did that!”

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Mortimer (Hugh Dancy) and Edmund (Rupert Everett) take a scientific approach in “Hysteria”

The film is a lot of silly fun, particularly as the young doctor becomes so successful at what he does, that he develops carpal tunnel syndrome. He turns to his eccentric inventor friend Edmund (Everett) for help. What Edmund produces makes them all a lot of money – all in the name of medical science of course.

“For me really the big joke was the cultural denial,” Wexler told me. “You know this sense the truth was right in front of your face, and we are going to medicalize it, we are just going to just pretend it’s something else, not call it its name.”

While the story seems outlandish now, Wexler says it’s made her think about some of the things people do today, like Botox treatments.

“Sometime in the not-to-distant future will we look back and say ‘can you remember when everyone was putting botulism in their forehead? It’s just crazy!” she laughed.

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While “Hysteria” is mildly risque and laugh-out-loud funny at times, it is also about some very serious issues about how women were treated at the time.

“I think in many ways it’s a story about women’s right to their own happiness, maybe,” said Wexler, shown here during the shooting of the movie.

When I told her “Hysteria” reminded me of “A League of Their Own,” she liked the comparison. She sees it as sharing the same cultural space as “The Full Monty,” being a little bawdy, but with heart.

As a mother of four she said she knows there is an audience out there comprised of parents who rarely get out to the movie theater because of the young ones in their houses, and who don’t want to squander the opportunities they do have. These are the people for whom she made “Hysteria.”

“I wanted something that spoke to me as a woman, that had a little bit more to say, but was entertaining,” she said.

Wexler says she didn’t want to make a battle of the sexes movie, and she’s been surprised how well the movie has done with men, and young men in particular.

While she admits her movie still faces some obstacles even now over the subject matter, she has a plan she thinks could well work for “Hysteria.”

“If I can get every woman who went to the Avengers for their boyfriend to now bring their boyfriend to our movie then we’ll do just fine,” she said.

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