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Movies

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy abuzz over ‘Hysteria‘

Liam Daniel/Sony Pictures Classics

NEW YORK — Maggie Gyllenhaal cannot suppress her giggles when she talks about her newest film.

Her costar, Hugh Dancy, told people he was working on a “genre piece set in Victorian England,” rather than get into details of the film’s subject.

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The movie, “Hysteria,” which opens Friday, is based on true medical events, but has everyone tittering because it’s the eyebrow-raising story of the invention of the vibrator by 19th-century British physicians.

“[Producer Judy Cairo] gave me the script and said, ‘It’s great and it happens to be about the invention of the vibrator,’ ” Gyllenhaal said with a laugh during a recent meeting at the Sony building. “I was instantly curious about the story. I wanted to know how and why it came to be.”

The film, directed by Tanya Wexler (“Ball in the House,” “Finding North”), tells the story of Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy), a London physician who bristles against the old-fashioned treatments favored by the medical establishment in 1880. Granville ultimately finds work with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who needs help treating the throngs of women who flock to his practice with vague symptoms.

Dalrymple’s patients seek help for afflictions of the female nervous system, which were believed to stem from a disorder of the uterus called “hysteria.” The doctors treat the ailment by “relieving tension within the womb,” which is now called inducing orgasm.

Eventually, Granville’s hand cramps from repeatedly administrating the treatment, which requires “steady, constant pressure,” and he is unable to perform his duties. He retreats to the home of his wealthy friend Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), whose newest invention, the electric feather duster, is powered by a rumbling generator. When Granville handles the duster, it dawns on him that the machine could be fashioned to treat hysteria, and, with a few adjustments, he invents the world’s first vibrator. The gadget is a great sensation with the women, whose ecstatic reactions to the new treatment range from euphoric groaning to spontaneous aria performances.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an outspoken social reformer in “Hysteria.’’ “I really liked her,’’ Gyllenhaal said of her character. “She was smart and clever. I felt the movie would be best served if she was as wild as possible, even if it wasn’t always historically accurate.’’

Ricardo Vaz Palmal/Sony Pictures Classics

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an outspoken social reformer in “Hysteria.’’ “I really liked her,’’ Gyllenhaal said of her character. “She was smart and clever. I felt the movie would be best served if she was as wild as possible, even if it wasn’t always historically accurate.’’

Meanwhile, Dancy’s character finds himself drawn to Dalrymple’s older daughter, Charlotte (Gyllenhaal). Charlotte is an outspoken social reformer who dismisses her father’s practice as frivolous, profiting from imaginary problems of over-privileged women.

“The movie tries to hit more than one note, which is always tricky,” said Dancy during a recent telephone interview. “It moves between out-and-out physical comedy, to much more traditional romantic comedy, into drama, and it was challenging for me to make all that work.

“Moving between the scenes was difficult,” Dancy continued. “In one moment I’m putting on goggles in a doctor’s office with Rupert Everett and Jonathan Pryce, trying this device out on an opera-singing patient and the next minute, I’m playing a romantic lead with Maggie.”

To make her character effective against the farcical vibrator backdrop, Gyllenhaal felt she had to underscore Charlotte’s radical ideas and uninhibited nature.

“I really liked her — she was smart and clever,” said Gyllenhaal. “I felt the movie would be best served if she was as wild as possible, even if it wasn’t always historically accurate. There is so little room for her to talk about what her politics are, and when she does talk about them, they don’t sound shocking by today’s standards, so I wanted her to be shocking in some other way — in her spirit.”

Gyllenhaal related to Charlotte’s fearlessness and willingness to stand up for what she believes in. She connected in particular to Charlotte’s feminist ideals, although she concedes that the kind of sexism Charlotte faced is radically different from the 21st-century variety.

“Charlotte’s way of shouting about everything doesn’t really work with the kind of inequality that’s around now, which is much more subtle,” said Gyllenhaal. “If every day, or three times a week, a woman in her job said, ‘You know, I’m not sure I agree with that,’ or ‘Let’s think about that and maybe have a meeting or a conversation,’ she’d be considered a pain. Whereas if it were a man, they’d say he was innovative or collaborative.

“In my job that’s certainly true,” she continued. “And you can still be a successful actress and still be a pain, but that’s a real inequality.”

The film’s unusual subject matter caused Dancy to think about how women have historically been perceived by society and take measure of the progress that’s been made. The fact that men of science performed the orgasm-inducing acts on women without considering the nature of their reactions, indicates a blind indifference to the female perspective, he said.

“I’ve looked into it and I really don’t think they had any clue what they were doing,” Dancy said. “They weren’t in denial, they weren’t putting an acceptable spin on it, they just didn’t have a clue about what was going on at the other end of their arms.”

For a while, Dancy said, he took solace in the fact that the topic of female sexuality, once taboo in polite society, is now “something that most of us have come to terms with.”

But recent political events, including the debate in Congress over health care coverage for birth control, make Dancy wonder whether we have evolved as much as he initially believed.

“The discussion about whether women should be allowed to buy contraception on their health insurance plans, to me, is a coded version of whether we like the idea of women having sex,” he said.

According to Bat Sheva Marcus of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality in New York, discomfort with the subject of women and sex prevented widespread use of the vibrator, despite the fact that it was invented more than 100 years ago.

“It was considered a medical device for years and years and it wasn’t until much later that it came out of the closet, so to speak,” said Marcus, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on women and vibrator use.

If people better understood the mechanics of female sexuality, vibrator use would be far more widespread, she said during a telephone interview from her Manhattan office. In an article published in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers found that of the 154 women in the study, only 10 women were unable to achieve orgasm with a vibrator.

“The only barrier [for women] is the skewed view in society that an orgasm produced with a vibrator is not as good as an orgasm produced from intercourse,” Marcus said.

“Hysteria,” she said, could be a powerful tool to help people become more comfortable with the concept of vibrators.

“I hope the movie gives a positive message that orgasms are important,” Marcus said. “I hope that it makes vibrators something that people talk about and laugh about and that they’ll incorporate their use into their lives.”

Judy Abel can be reached at judyabel22@gmail
.com.
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