REVIEWED BY CHARLES LONBERGER
Hysteria is an enterprise that stands Reality on its head: At a time when the world is plagued by homicidal violence produced by it, this film denies that hysteria even exists at all (“Hysteria,” we are solemnly informed, “is a fiction,” a fiction produced by the sexual incompetence of “prudish husbands,” thereby blaming men for problems of the opposite sex).
The script, by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer, is anchored by representing one thing as something else. For instance, the practice of medicine becomes a form of quackery, while gynecologic exams become experiences in masturbation. Women are “anxious” because they are discontent and, since every woman in this film seems to be discontented, we are supposed to believe that a unified social movement (ie. Feminism) is afoot.
The Dyers use the Dickensian backdrop of Victorian London to excuse a Marxist perspective (the poor are, to a man, noble and honorable), one that cloaks itself in a holier-than-thou Liberation theology that reinterprets atheist Communism as “truly Christian.” Females are portrayed as an oppressed Underclass, with landlords accosting women and employing thugs, in classic Marxist mythology. This Socialist diatribe flies in the face of the facts, as the economic structure the screenplay champions has resulted in the contemporary European crises and the American entitlement debt.
The Dyers ridicule Freudianism, its palpable anger barely disguised by its – dare we say?- hysterical outbursts of ludicrous, yet mean-spirited, humor directed, oddly enough, at the sexual relief of (exclusively Upper Class) women, the operative words here being Upper Class. Continuing classic Marxist ideology, the Law is made a mockery of, and the Police are portrayed as oppressors. Mostly the fury is directed against uterine removal as a cure for hysteria, blithely ignoring the close relationship between the words hysteria and hysterectomy.
Seen from this explicitly Socialist point of view, Charity work becomes a form of social revolution and Doctors are de facto Sex Workers. The film’s conclusion is particularly perverse, even illogical: an infusion of Capital (albeit charitable) enables the Communist movement, concluding the film on an image of a man on his knees before a woman who gladly takes his money while bestowing on him a condescending kiss, in the Dyers’ version of a Happy Ending. In this light, an Ideal Marriage is described as akin to “A Good Argument,” while wives themselves are disrespected a la Hillary Rosen, their lives dismissed as filled with “mindless housework.”
The direction of Tanya Wexler is heavy-handed, farcical and didactic.Physicians are depicted by Wexler as oppressors who are lampooned by their patients, vibrating machines overheat, and ducks mate and squawk. Particularly sledge-hammer is Wexler’s use of the editing of Billy A. Campbell to make anti-biblical associations and to cruelly compare orgasmic women to baboons and to have well-heeled men step in excrement.
Much like Wexler’s direction, the cinematography of Sean Bobbitt is wholly unoriginal; the best technical aspect of this film is its Art Direction by Bill Crutcher which, at least, establishes visual authenticity.
The cast overplays its hand. As Charlotte, Maggie Gyllenhaal is one-note and strident; her completely misjudged performance casts doubt on the narrative (How can she possibly be the product of the Dalryrmple household and just how/why did she turn so hostile?). Before she ends up incarcerated, she proscribes “extreme drunkenness” to impoverished women, “knows all about germs (?),” sacrifices her mother’s earrings, and offers her uterus to Dr. Granville. She seems to have been dropped into the story via a time machine as there is no hint of the Victorian about her, at all.
The drama revolves around the Dr. Granville of Hugh Dancy, who is dryly pretty. Being a turncoat qualifies him to be considered forward-thinking in the eyes of Wexler/the Dyers. He is in demand from all quarters, produces orgasms by manual stimulation (a gynecological exam apparently never felt so good), and ends up on his knees, submitting to a man-hater’s terms in parroting them as his own.
The best of the lot is Rupert Everett as “electrical assistant” Edmund. “Crude, rough and inexact” he laughs at women, contemptuously applauding as they orgasm. Also fine is Felicity Jones as Emily, who is sympathetically portrayed as she who practices polite conversation and phrenology, a discipline that she disavows once she is brainwashed into “realizing” it is part of a Patriarchal plot to control her.
The heavy here, Jonathan Pryce as Papa Dalryrmple, is as single-mindedly over-the-top as Gyllenhaal. He is villainous and controlling as the representative of all things patriarchal, and apparently conceives of gynecology as a form of aromatherapy.
The secondary characters, women all, exist to be lampooned and laughed at, particularly the Mrs. Castellari of Kim Criswell, who slanders Italian women, in general, as sluts, turning “Sempre Libre” into an overblown orgasmic shout of the privileged. In contrast, Sheridan Smith, as working girl Molly the Lolly, a former prostitute (and, thus, one of the exploited), asks the doctors to “do their worst,” gets paid up front and is the only one to “enjoy the power of technology” without being ridiculed. Interestingly, for a film about “female empowerment,” we do not laugh with women, we are encouraged to laugh at them…that is, if they are married and/or monied.
Denying the reality of hysteria as a condition does not make it go away. In telling its audience a Big Lie in such ham-fisted fashion, the producers of this fiction discredit themselves and all involved with such a shameless, pandering and dishonest ideological production.
Complete with a show trial, it is released by Sony Pictures Classics.
FROM THE VAULT:
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
REVIEWED BY CHARLES LONBERGER
An example of the Message Movies that Hollywood has been prone to, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? depicts the Depression in…well…, depressing fashion.
Scriptwriters James Poe and Robert E. Thompson indict America in this socio-economic statement disguised as character studies. Implicitly, it stresses the importance of the collective (“A man’s gotta be part of something, y’know”), and condemns Capitalism as benefiting from the Depression by engaging in torture (a dance marathon) as public entertainment, presenting the spectacle-for-profit misery. Melodramatically, dying contestants are kept alive through various forms of shock therapy (“the show must go on”), while women practice purposeful infidelity. Starkly allegorizing America as exploitive and cruel, the screenplay is filled with melodramatic clichés and morbid irony.
The workmanlike direction of Sydney Pollack is metaphorically heavy-handed, and awkward in its cross-cutting between expressionistic and naturalistic styles. He operates off of a standard objective/subjective axis yet finds time to voyeuristically flash flesh in the women’s showers. The cinematography of Philip Lathrop is oddly high gloss, though the sound design imaginatively and effectively uses sirens to provoke differing audience responses.
Actor centric in concept, plum parts are served up to the cast. As contestant Gloria, Jane Fonda is one-note as a hard-boiled tart who ends up begging to be killed. As her dance partner, Robert, Michael Sarrazin sympathetically murders out of compassion. As the Sailor, Red Buttons dies on the dance floor. And Al Lewis is the right-hand man of the heavy.
Because of her performance as would be Hollywood Glamour Girl Alice, Susannah York was suddenly taken seriously as an actress; her work here, particularly her mad scene, where she cracks up in the shower, is brilliant in her mastery of pantomime.
But the production is dominated by the performance of Gig Young as the Emcee, Rocky. Falsely promising that “prosperity is just around the corner,” his epitomizes larger-than-life Evil in a role of compromised sleaziness.
Competently made, this production is well-acted, if over the top in its deliverance of its Marxist message.
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