There are certain topics related to sex that remain taboo or confusing. Two of these are addressed in the film Hysteria
: sex toys and the female orgasm. But the shame and eroticism typically associated with the subjects have been replaced with humour and common sense, providing an uncommon look at the invention of the first electric vibrator in the 1880s.
Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a progressive doctor, advocating the importance of hand washing and sanitary conditions when germ theory was just that – a theory. Essentially being banished or blackballed from most medical offices and hospitals, he finally enters the overflowing practice of the leading doctor in women's medicine who is in desperate need of an assistant. According to his diagnosis, half the women in London suffer from "hysteria" with symptoms ranging from insomnia to depression to anxiety. The treatment of the illness is "stimulation of the nervous system." In essence, they manually give these women weekly orgasms, or paroxysms. Eventually Dr. Granville develops a form of carpal tunnel that makes him ineffective and creates the need for a mechanical helper. Thus, he and his technologically-inclined friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), invented the "electric massager."
Director Tanya Wexler chose the perfect way to approach this subject, highlighting the absurdity of hysteria as a diagnosis and the so-called treatment that followed it. Prescription medication eventually supplanted the personal massage, but hysteria remained an official illness listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1952. This whole situation was made possible by the rigid belief that women could only gain sexual pleasure from heterosexual intercourse; therefore, it wasn't pleasure they experienced during these intimate appointments with the doctor but simple relief of their symptoms. Of course, after the first vibrator made an appearance in a stag film, the connection became more difficult to deny.
Every role in this picture is tongue-in-cheek (sometimes literally if "Molly Lolly" is on screen). The patients are mostly outrageous, while Edmund's advice for Mortimer about giving his hand a rest and using his tongue is just one example of the sassy dialogue. Even the demonstration of "the procedure" in its straight-faced sincerity is uproarious.
Though blushing may be imminent, so is the laughter - and it isn't embarrassed or hushed because the narrative does such a wonderful job of telling the story in a fun, open manner.
Director: Tanya Wexler
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal
, Hugh Dancy
and Jonathan Pryce