Ebertfest: 'Hysteria' director says she walked a fine line

Ebertfest: 'Hysteria' director says she walked a fine line

CHAMPAIGN — While making the movie "Hysteria," about the invention of the vibrator in prudish Victorian England, director Tanya Wexler had to walk a fine line.

"I tried to play the film straight, like classic cinema against the absurd concept," she said after the movie was shown Thursday at the 19th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre.

She drew some of her inspiration by watching Merchant Ivory Productions and aimed for more of a "romance" than comedy style in the romantic comedy starring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Dancy, who was on the Virginia stage with Wexler, said the style of the movie reminds him of old-fashioned British comedies that "were fun to watch but would be decorous at the same time."

"The challenge for me, I realized pretty quickly, was to unify the story lines that stretched between farce on one end and something more serious," he said.

In "Hysteria," Dancy portrays Dr. Mortimer Granville, who invented the vibrator in 1880s London after working alongside Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who treated in his posh office women whom he diagnosed with female "hysteria."

Then a common diagnosis, hysteria covered a wide range of symptoms such as irritability, a lack of desire for sex, a strong sex drive, nervousness and the tendency to "cause trouble" or be disagreeable.

In extreme cases, women were committed to insane asylums and given hysterectomies. The medical diagnosis of hysteria ended in 1952.

In the movie, Dr. Dalrymple treats women whom he diagnoses with hysteria by digitally manipulating them to orgasm. After Dr. Granville is fired from his hospital job, he joins Dr. Dalrymple in his practice.

While treating patients, the two work under a sort of red-velvet tent placed over the lower part of the woman's body.

Dancy revealed on stage that "the magic behind the curtain was a sandbag" placed under the actresses' clothes. He said he and Pryce developed blisters on their fingers by working the sandbags.

The movie also depicts Dr. Granville as suffering a more serious injury, a repetitive stress injury to his right hand. At one point, he switches to using his left hand but fails to bring a patient to "paroxym."

So he comes up with the idea to invent the vibrator after studying a motorized feather duster created by a friend, played by Rupert Everett. Wexler said the vibrator actually was created for males as a labor-saving device.

Wexler said her movie is about many things — class and women's issues enter the picture — but really about "denial in the face of overwhelming truth." For example, in one scene, Dr. Granville's superior at the hospital where he works chastises him for subscribing to the latest medical theories, including about germs.

Making the movie, Wexler also wanted to understand the "pathological pathologizing of women." While the status of women has improved since the 1880s, Wexler said people continue to call women hysterical and irrational.

"I don't think trust in women's sound judgment has been fully secured," she said.

Wexler, a native Chicagoan, cast the movie with British actors except for one — Gyllenhaal, who plays Dr. Dalrymple's headstrong daughter, Charlotte, a suffragette who works in a settlement house.

During the question-and-answer session, a man in the audience commented on Gyllenhaal's convincing British accent. On the sets in London and Luxembourg, Gyllenhaal spoke only in a British accent, even when not acting, Wexler said.

After Gyllenhaal wrapped up her scenes, her 5-year-old daughter showed up on set; Gyllenhaal spoke "American" to her, Wexler said, adding that a British crew member was shocked, having believed Gyllenhaal was British.

Scene and heard

Here's what caught the eye of Melissa Merli, in her 19th year covering Ebertfest:

— I had been unfamiliar with actor Hugh Dancy's work until I saw "Hysteria" at Ebertfest. After only five minutes of watching him on screen, I became a huge fan.

— No wonder director Tanya Wexler can make a movie like "Hysteria." Her late father, Jerrold, allowed her as a young teen to "vociferously" express her opinions; he did not let people silence her.

— The University of Illinois Library will soon put Roger Ebert's archives online. A "soft opening" of some of those documents, including letters to mentor/friend Daniel Curley, is on view in the East Lobby of the Virginia during Ebertfest.

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