Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Dear Sweet Machine

Hysteria: directed by Tanya Wexler; written by Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer and Howard Gensler

Not content to just dither around with a single major plot-line in her film, Tanya Wexler and her writers opt to focus on three. And, from the union of three, we end up with a period drama (our protagonists tries to achieve self worthy through his medical inclinations) by way of romance (he must choose between the demure, but conventional sister and the irrepressible but passionate one) by way of quasi-biopic (it’s sort of based on the story of the man who invented in the vibrator) by way of comedy of manners (he only invented it because his hand got cramped from giving too many, ummmm, vaginal massages). In short, Hysteria becomes something of a ninety minute bauble that’s too much and too little all at once. But, let me back up before I lose you, dear reader.
Not that the film is as worried about losing the audience. It begins with the name – hysteria. There is the medical hysteria and the colloquial hysteria. And there is little about Hysteria (the film) that is joyfully frenetic (but for its inability to focus). And to call a film which, ultimately, hopes to subvert gender issues in the Victorian era naming it after a made-up disease is suspect. Medical hysteria is something different from the colloquial use. The medical term refers to some imbalance of the uterus manifested in – it would seem – any nonconformist behaviour or thoughts in women and treated by the vaginal massage, which is just what it sounds like and culminates in just what you think. For all the hope he has of changing the way medicine is used idealistic Mortimer Granville ends up working under the leading vaginal masseuse soon initiated into the business and chosen as protégé and future son-in-law to the doctor’s demure, piano playing daughter.

How does one respond to something which, from this modern perspective, seems especially bizarre? It’s a situation wrought with issues – gender and sexual politics, inequality and what not. I could not decide if the way that things on unfolded in Hysteria was a strength or a flaw. Sex. It’s the one of the oldest things imaginable, and yet the cinema oftentimes seems uncertain of how to deal with it. Thus, Wexler and company’s decision to take a look at the sexual politics of the Victorian Era through their winking comedic tone makes me wonder. Is it just that people are still so uncomfortable about sex and what it entails that the only way to deal with it is through laughter? Humour to tinge “serious” issues is essential at times (although becoming too self aware becomes an issue). Even the winking comedic lens utilised seems workable for at least a portion of Hysteria work on film, but the situation becomes thorny when the arc of feminist-romantic comedy arises. Enter Charlotte Dalrymple, the irrepressible daughter of Mortimer’s boss and sister to his more decorous fiancée.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte is just what the film needs and easily the finest things about it. Structurally, though, her character launches the film into one of its two main quandaries. Ultimately the film hopes to debunk the belief that it is only psychosis which makes women unhappy (and merely an orgasm that can cure them) but it throws out one fallacy to employ the other – that of the boring lady versus the interesting tomboy. The writers address the issue by having Mortimer address the audience in a courtroom flourish at the end that’s something contrived but which Hugh Dancy and all his charm are almost able to pull off. Almost.

There is a great a deal of information meted out to the audience in Hysteria and still when the vibrator is finally appears and its strong indications for the replacement of “human” talent the film doesn’t do much with it. And, in retrospect, this is not much of a surprise. Ultimately, the vibrator’s invention and pseudo-history lesson become supplementary to the arc the film is more interested in – boy meets girl. And, rather, had Wexler and company devoted full attention to that facet Hysteria might have managed to work better because its charm is what it has going most for it. For a performer so often likely to come off as dour Gyllenhaal captures her period constraints excellently reminding me of an early 90s Emma Thompson character – fighting her period valiantly but at one with it nonetheless. Surrounding her and the amiable Hugh is a cast of solid performances (but for Felicity Jones woefully dull sedate lass). Hysteria is not much frenzied, and it sometimes certainly humorous. And, right there, my review belies me because I did have fun with this one and in its own vaguely generic way it held my interest throughout. Pleasant on occasion, but perhaps, not worth much in the long run. I’d tie this up with a sex metaphor, but I am a gentleman. And, because I am a gentleman, I recall that I enjoyed it while it lasted as I give my grade.

All’s Fair / C+

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