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In this film image released by Sony Pictures Classics, Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays Charlotte Dalrymple in a scene from "Hysteria." (Liam Daniel/Liam Daniel / Sony Pictures Classics)
In this film image released by Sony Pictures Classics, Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays Charlotte Dalrymple in a scene from "Hysteria." (Liam Daniel/Liam Daniel / Sony Pictures Classics)

Johanna Schneller

Hysteria: a vibrator film you can bring your mom to Add to ...

By the time she finished filming the new comic drama Hysteria in England, Maggie Gyllenhaal had 15 new vibrators. “People just kept giving them to me,” she said, her wide blue eyes widening even more, during a joint interview in Toronto with her director, Tanya Wexler, and co-stars Jonathan Pryce and Hugh Dancy.

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“I gave you a bullet-shaped one,” Wexler reminded Gyllenhaal. “I gave everyone in the cast and crew one when we started. You try going through customs with 20 small vibrating devices in your luggage.”

“That’s happened to me my whole career,” Dancy joked. “I went to a sex museum in Shanghai before the film. It’s hundreds of artifacts that you have to take at their word were used for sex, because a lot of them look like ... that’s a rock! You just can’t see how, anatomically –”

“I went to a sex museum, too,” Gyllenhaal said. “The vibrators there looked like hairdryers.”

This is the way it goes when you talk about Hysteria, which opened in select cities on Friday. It’s based on the true story of doctors in Victorian England (played by Dancy and Pryce) who, while pursuing a “cure” for hysteria – the then-popular diagnosis for general female dissatisfaction – ended up accidentally inventing the vibrator. Gyllenhaal plays Charlotte, a free spirit who wises up Dancy as to what hysteria is really about.

“I like to leave a little pause before I explain the plot,” Pryce said, grinning. “Then there’s another little pause while the listener takes it in.”

“The most incredible thing – the source of both the comedy and the meaningful stuff,” Dancy offered, “is that these serious medical men, without any irony, were diagnosing this non-existent condition, doing what they were doing to treat it” – that is, massaging their patients’ clitorises until they climaxed – “and totally neglecting to see there was anything sexual about it. Which is astonishing.”

“It’s a massive conversation-starter,” Wexler summed up.

Forthright conversations about female sexuality seem to be happening more and more these days – in David Cronenberg’s recent drama A Dangerous Method, in which Freud and Jung test their theories about hysteria on a willing patient; in the HBO series Girls, in which four twentysomething New York women navigate the murky waters of 21st-century sex; and even in the commercials for Summer’s Eve vaginal cleansing cloths, whose slogan is “Hail to the V.”

“It’s territory we haven’t explored much before now, but I don’t know why that is,” Gyllenhaal said.

“Isn’t it due to what this movie suggests?” Dancy suggested. “That women categorically have desires and needs equal to or as individual as men, but since most movies are made by men, it’s threatening? Because it suggests a whole other life going on that’s separate.”

While the sex scenes in Girls and A Dangerous Method are far edgier, Wexler positioned her film on “that nexus between tee-hee and hmm,” she said. “One of the main things I had to work out was not what we’d show, but how the women’s orgasms would sound. They couldn’t be too funny or too porny. When the actresses went for a more painful sound, it fell flat. But when the sounds were joyous, the comedy worked, and allowed the audience to enjoy it with them.”

This comic approach allowed Wexler to set what must be a new record for female orgasms per film. Girls is groundbreaking in its depiction of honest, unpretty sex, but in the first four episodes, none of its heroines got off. And according to Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, about the U.S. ratings system, the single factor most likely to result in a film’s receiving the strictest rating is the depiction of a female orgasm – not violence, not even men climaxing. “A woman experiencing pleasure,” Dick has said, “seems to be the most dangerous thing of all.”

“The issue in all these scripts is about women being able to choose their own destiny,” Wexler said. “They’re about whose hands, literally, the power is in. So the movement in our film goes from someone else allowing you to realize your desires, to yourself. I think it’s subversive to make a film about the vibrator that you can bring your mom to.”

“A lot of the films I make have a lot to do with sexuality, and that’s because I’m interested in sexuality,” Gyllenhaal said. “I learn about the characters I play through sex scenes. A sex scene can be a soft-core porn thing, which you see all the time, where it’s all about how great I look in this demi-cut black bra and I’ve been lit perfectly and I look like a fantasy of a woman – which is not my thing; it makes me scared and nervous. Or it can be an amazing opportunity for a different kind of acting and a different kind of communicating. I think that opens up a whole other way of looking at your own sex life. You think, ‘That turns me on,’ or, ‘I relate to that.’ It can make you feel, ‘Maybe it’s all right for me to want my sex life to go in this direction, or my heart.’ ”

“Women often get lost in the equation, and not just about sex,” Wexler said. “In the years I spent getting this film made, I came up against that. Over and over again, the marketplace discovers there’s this huge, underserved market of women who want to see movies that reflect their experience. And while a lot of women are interested in getting married, I think there are a lot of other topics that women are also interested in.”

If honest sex is the subject that makes Hollywood finally pay attention to women, I say, yes … yes … yes! Because, despite this current frankness, femaleness retains a bit too much mystery, onscreen and off. “This is a romantic comedy, so I don’t want to get too heavy-handed,” Wexler said – then laughed along with everyone at her unintended pun. “But I think there’s still a lot of shame out there. I had a college roommate, smart girl, went out with her boyfriend for three years and never had an orgasm. I think a lot of women today still think that without the insertion of the male member they’re not real orgasms.”

“Really?” Gyllenhaal asked, incredulous.

“A woman came up to me at a party after a screening,” Dancy added, “and said, ‘You know, unlike men, women cannot outsource masturbation.’ Then she walked off. I have no idea what she meant.”

“Yeah,” Gyllenhaal said. “Because, you know, we can.”

“It’s just not,” Dancy summed up, “the kind of conversation I usually have.”

Follow on Twitter: @JoSchneller

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