“I’ve made lots of movies about sex,” Maggie Gyllenhaal says soberly. “I feel pretty open and curious and interested. I was surprised to feel as much as I did.”
Ms. Gyllenhaal is remarking on what happened when she watched her new film along with the crowds at the Toronto film festival last year. “I felt like … people [in the audience] were a little hysterical, flushed. I felt that a little bit, too. I was just surprised that we all as a culture are so unused to seeing or talking about women having orgasms. I didn’t expect to feel that way.”
While only inspired by historical fact, “Hysteria,” set in Victorian London, focuses on two doctors who specialize in the treatment of an amorphous female condition given the catch-all term that also serves as the movie’s title. Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) and Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) find that stimulating a “paroxyism” (i.e. orgasm) in the female can relieve them of their nervousness, depression or other such feelings of malaise. But the intensity of the work – there are many shots of poor Dr. Granville soaking his hands in ice water – leads the younger doctor to stumble on the invention for the first “personal massager” (i.e. vibrator).
Having starred in many a steamy scene, including those of the quirky S&M drama “Secretary,” Gyllenhaal has no problem with a frank discussion on sexual politics. Given that “Hysteria” is released only a few years after Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-nominated play “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” which also covers the topic of Victorian vibrators, she’s happy to speculate as to why we’re seeing such an interest in that era of sexual repression and eventual awakening.
“Maybe we’re just ready to starting thinking about women’s sexuality and pleasure in a way that we hadn’t been before,” she offers. “What I keep thinking is interesting is that [these Victorian doctors] in the movie have this really difficult job of walking this line between believing that they are performing a medical procedure that has nothing to do with sexuality. At the same time, people have been having sex since there have been people. Orgasms are associated with sexual pleasure. Like, how dissociative do you have to be to think that this has nothing to do with sex?”