Director Tanya Wexler’s latest movie, “Hysteria,” is about the invention of vibrators in Victorian England.
Josh Haner, New York Times
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Pioneering in good vibrations hits the movie screen
- Article by: COLIN COVERT
- Star Tribune
- May 26, 2012 - 6:24 PM
The setting: Victorian-era London. The predicament: Many husbands leave their wives feeling unfulfilled. The medical diagnosis: The frustrated women are classified as suffering a vague nervous disorder termed "hysteria." The treatment: A male physician administers manual massage to the patient's "most gentle areas" until she experiences a "paroxysm" and sweet relief. The consequence: Dr. Mortimer Granville, his massaging hand exhausted and painful, designs the electro-mechanical handheld vibrator.
The offshoot: "Hysteria," a blithe period romantic comedy starring Hugh Dancy as the prim Dr. Granville, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his suffragist love interest and Rupert Everett as his friend, an eccentric inventor.
In a movie marketplace where cookie-cutter films require little explanation, this one needs a bit of set-up. "If Merchant Ivory, Jane Austen and [British romantic comedy specialist] Richard Curtis had a movie baby, this would be it," said director Tanya Wexler during a recent visit to Minneapolis. Wexler comes from a show-business family -- she's the half-sister of Daryl Hannah, the niece of famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler and related by marriage to music mogul Jerry Adler. She had taken an extended break from filmmaking to raise four children with her wife.
"I wanted to be entertained, but I didn't want to make a movie about a wedding dress," she said. "I don't think they're all bad. But there are enough of them. I didn't want to make what's usually presented as a women's movie."
When her friend, producer Tracey Becker (of "Finding Neverland"), suggested a rom-com about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England, "I laughed and I said if I never make another movie again, I have to make that."
There seem to be as many taboos surrounding women's sexuality today as in the 1880s, she said, and humor was the ideal way to tackle the issue. After seven years in development, "Hysteria" opens at the Edina Cinema on Friday.
Wexler calls the movie "'Howard's End' with vibrators." Although the film is rated R for sexual content, it's a chaste affair that gets its laughs through implication.
"I like the idea that it's not a bawdy sex farce," she said. "It's supposed to be a thinking woman's romantic comedy, a deft, light comedy of manners with a modern feeling." The film has fun with the truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
"It's not just jokey jokes. It's really about hysteria, this diagnosis of women that is really cultural denial and what we do to ignore the truth that is right in front of us. How we tell ourselves these silly fabrications and the truth is what's a scandal. I say to my friends sometimes, 'Can you imagine what they'll think in 20 years' time when they look back at us injecting our foreheads with botulinum toxin?'"
Wexler's comedy pantheon features big mainstream successes, including "When Harry Met Sally," "Knocked Up" and "Bridesmaids," where the female characters are as fully developed as the men. She's optimistic that there's an opening to make more smart crowd-pleasers like those.
"Hollywood rediscovers that there's a women's audience every year," she said. "'Mamma Mia' makes $600 million and they say, 'Holy moly.' 'Knocked Up' creates the whole R-rated comedy subgenre. When people asked me who's the audience [for 'Hysteria'] I'd say every woman on the planet, all the guys under 40, at least half the guys over 40 and all the gay guys. I didn't want to get into women's victimology and make an us-against-them movie. This isn't about who leaves the toilet seat up, who's the bad guy. It's about how we all, pardon the expression, come together."
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