Mail & Guardian

Good vibrations

09 Nov 2012 01:04 | Shaun de Waal

A saucy suffragette: Maggie Gyllenhaal teases Rupert Everett and Hugh Dancy in Hysteria

A saucy suffragette: Maggie Gyllenhaal teases Rupert Everett and Hugh Dancy in Hysteria

Not so long ago this paper ran a story about three women who, post-career or post-marriage, had opened “sensuality boutiques”. Such a boutique is basically a sex shop with better décor, or at least more soft, frilly, feminine décor, and the marketing pitch is that you don’t just go there to buy your porn movies and anal beads, you go there to buy sensuality.

The picture relating to this piece, as presented on the front of the Friday section, showed three dildos made of what appeared to be glass, with some colourful decorative material lodged inside them — the way flies get trapped in amber. They looked very nice, in a table-ornament sort of way, but readers were left unclear as to whether glass was really a suitable substance from which to craft a dildo, how ever good-looking.

The piece itself offered no advice or information on how exactly a woman should pick her dildo, or perhaps we should say “sensuality instrument” — how is one to calculate relative size and shape, and how to decide on the correct balance of flexibility and hardness? It’s not as though you could take a selection of sensuality instruments home to test-drive them and then, the next day, return the ones that didn’t do it for you. “I’ll take the Big Pink, please — I just wasn’t feeling any of the others. Oh, and is that available in beige? I’d like it to match my linen.”

Then again, all of this is surely a capitalist plot. As Damian Thompson argues in The Fix, his recent book about addiction, compulsion and contemporary Western culture, a key part of capitalist consumerism is replacing people with things — removing the difficulties of interpersonal relationships and their endless negotiations and, in their stead, investing in activities you can pursue in glorious solitude and with a sense of total control. This goes for substances as well as behaviours such as compulsive internet use or shopping, so I can’t see why it shouldn’t apply to dildos.

Of course dildos have been around for millennia; they are recorded as being in use among the ancient Romans. The vibrator, however, is another story — an entirely modern invention, the dildo enhanced by electricity. And that is the story told, in doubtless highly fictionalised form, by the movie Hysteria. It is based on real events, it insists, and a Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville did indeed patent the first electricity-powered vibrator, as told in the movie, with Dr Granville impersonated by the highly personable Hugh Dancy.

It is 1880s London. Granville gets thrown out of a hospital job because of his belief in the radical theory of germs; he’s a progressive young chap, all for modern science and so on. He finds work with a Dr Darymple, who specialises in “female medicine”, which includes “pelvic massage” as a treatment for hysteria. That means manually stimulating an orgasm in the patient, though the medical consensus of the day had it that this was simply a nervous paroxysm, the female genitals being incapable of feeling real pleasure. Hysteria, of course, was thought to be a disorder caused by a wandering womb — an idea that goes back to the ancient Greeks (hystera being Greek for womb). Thank heavens Freud was just around the corner.

For Granville, though, his huge success as a manual stimulator overtaxes him somewhat, and this being an age of great technological advance it’s not a long way to the idea of a mechanised form of inducing those paroxysms in the otherwise prim ladies of London’s upper classes. It’s a spoiler, really, to say he invents a vibrator, because that happens halfway through the movie, but it’s the first thing you get in any one-line description of the movie, so relax and don’t worry too much about the plot points.

Alongside his medical progress, Granville is progressing romantically. But will it be Dr Darymple’s angel of a dutiful daughter, Emily, or will it be the “Chinese cracker” Charlotte, a liberated, free-thinking suffragette and practically a médécin sans frontières herself? Emily is much like those saintly heroines of Dickens’s who were said to have mere table legs under those voluminous skirts, whereas Charlotte is played by the fiery Maggie Gyllenhaal, so it doesn’t seem a fair contest.

A stately romp
At any rate, the conflicts suffered by Granville (and Dancy looks most fetching when he’s squirming with embarrassment) and the rest of them are parlayed into a story that proceeds at a pace one can only call a stately romp. It is also pretty predictable, given the way it sets itself up, but then that goes for most of what one sees on the big screen, and at least the bits between the predictable developments are presented with wit, energy and charm.

The film looks lovely, in that BBCish period-picture way in which even the poorest people are clad in the most immaculately ragged, stained and dun-coloured costumes. It tends to overdo the musical cues and clichés somewhat too: whenever Gyllenhaal appears riding a bicycle, for instance, expect to hear some jolly little ditty bouncing along in the background. On the other hand, one operatic moment in the doctors’ consulting rooms is quite priceless.

The subordinate roles are filled by British thesps of considerable standing, giving them a pleasing solidity and depth of character. Jonathan Pryce is almost inevitably cast as the huffily conventional Dr Darymple, and Rupert Everett is just as inevitably given the role of the eccentric aristocrat with a passion for electrical experimentation and, it is suggested, sexual deviance.

It is no great work of pioneering cinema, but Hysteria is very enjoyable in a middle-of-the road sort of way. It is amusing without being, er, hysterically funny; it is consistently engaging without being utterly gripping. Despite its allegedly path-breaking subject matter, it’s really the kind of movie you could enjoy the way one appreciates a nice cup of tea.

View the original online publication here