Saturday, June 16, 2012
Last night my wife and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary and went out for dinner and a movie. So after sushi and sashimi at our favorite South Lansing sushi joint, we went to the South Lansing cinema and picked the movie with the most convenient start time. That happened to be a film we hadn't heard of until the previous evening, and it was named "Hysteria".
Apparently this was first released in Europe in late 2011, but the comedy from director Tanya Wexler is only now being shown in U.S. theaters. It is appropriate that it is out at this time as my community is currently embroiled a huge feminine controversy; more on that later. I don't recall hearing anything either last year or this year about this film, which is surprising as my wife and I go to the cinema on average once a week.
The primary actors in the film are Hugh Dancy (as Dr. Moritmer Granville), Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Charlotte Dalrymple), Jonathan Pryce (as Dr. Robert Dalrymple), and Felicity Jones (as Emily Dalrymple). While the ladies playing the Dalrymple sisters seem rather bland for their roles, many of the supporting actresses (such as Sheridan Smith, Kim Criswell and Georgie Glen) shine in their brief appearances. The lead actors do their jobs well, as Pryce and Dancy seemed born to play their roles as physicians in Victorian-era London. What really shines though is the script.
The writing credits for the picture are for Stephen & Jonah Lisa Dyer and based on an original story by Howard Densler. The film follows the mostly true story of young Dr. Granville who is rejected by the London medical establishment in the late 1800s, due to his fanciful notion about so-called "germs" and how leeching patients is not medically productive. He can only find work as an assistant in Dr. Dalrymple's practice which exclusively treats women suffering from the bourgeois "disease" of hysteria.
According to the book "Hysteria Beyond Freud" (by Gilman, King, Porter, Rousseau, & Showalter), hysteria "...was extraordinarily prominent in nineteenth-century medicine and culture." The first physician known to have diagnosed hysteria was the first physician, Hippocrates, and throughout history the term was used to describe almost all ailments that were singularly feminine. By the time period of this film the condition was considered to include symptoms of "violent muscular contractions..., paralysis, loss of voice, retention of urine, anesthesia, and blindness" all the way to less severe ailments of "loss of appetite..., menstrual difficulties, and fainting spells". Modern medical historians view pre-Freudian diagnoses of hysteria as predominantly a catch-all for feminine depression or other emotional or physical disorders that the physician could not attribute to any other cause.
For the purposes of this film, Dr. Dalrymple would attribute hysteria to any bored, depressed, lonely, and/or unsatisfied housewife with the ability to pay for his "services" of "hysterical paroxysms". Because his "services" were not inexpensive, only women of significant means could avail themselves of his practice. Women or others with genuinely diagnosable and treatable conditions -- such as broken legs or malnutrition -- who could not pay were turned away, left to suffer and die. The surface tension of the film was Dr. Granville's struggle between on the one hand a wealthy and comfortable living "treating" the clients of his practice with a chance of assuming not just Dr. Dalrymple's practice but also a betrothal to his obedient younger daughter Emily and on the other hand treating the genuine illnesses of London's poor with little financial reward alongside Dr. Dalrymple's rebellious older daughter Charlotte.
The true theme of the film though is the more subtle tension between logic & equality vs. superstition & hierarchy. This is explored to hilarious effect, with the Dyers' script providing numerous illustrations of answers to questions such as: Should bandages be changed? What constitutes prostituting oneself? Should you earn your way in the world if it is not necessary? And is it necessary for women to live in the world on their own terms? While some are questions we now would consider answered (yes, bandages should be changed at least daily) the current political and social debates about women's reproductive health shows that modern society is still wrestling with some of these issues.
But the film provokes as many laughs as it does thoughts. Dr. Granville's influence on Victorian women -- heck, his influence on Victoria -- continues through today. Although it's not a must-see in the theater and will likely be just as good on your home screen, women and men alike will find it, as my wife put it, "hysterical".
After the film I took her to Burger King where we enjoyed bacon sundaes. Truly it was a memorable anniversary.