Tribeca Dialogue: 'Hysteria' Director Tanya Wexler on Vibrators, Monty Python and the "Thinking Woman's Romantic Comedy"

Tribeca Dialogue: 'Hysteria' Director Tanya Wexler on Vibrators, Monty Python and the "Thinking Woman's Romantic Comedy"

Apr 27, 2012

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy in Hysteria (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

There are just so many puns to be made about Hysteria. The buzz about this romantic comedy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy has been growing since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September. It's a beautifully shot period piece full of Victorian flourishes and delightful costumes, it's a romantic comedy with a fiercely outspoken protagonist, and it's about the invention of a unique contraption that has changed many people's lives for the better: the vibrator. It's also about how women were controlled, locked up, and sterilized for not toeing the tightly corseted Victorian line -- for being outspoken, for being emotional, for being unsatisfied with their status in society.

Gyllenhaal is one such firebrand, a suffragette named Charlotte who would rather work with the poor than fiddle with phrenology like her sister Emily (Felicity Jones). Their father Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) has a waiting room full of women eagerly waiting for their hysteria-calming massages; luckily, Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy) comes along to offer another pair of hands. Although Hysteria delves into some serious stuff, there's also plenty of romance, giggles, and orgasms to go around. Also, a little bit of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Although it's tempting to brand Hysteria as a message movie, director Tanya Wexler is aiming for the sweet spot of romantic comedy. "I'm not interested in a battle of the sexes. I wasn't trying to make an us-against-them movie," she said. "This movie isn't about what keeps us apart. Again, the puns are numerous. It's about what makes us come together and how we find each other as people, not just as men and women, and I love that. Make love, not war. Make a little war so you can make love," she added with a laugh. So, vibrators! Sorry, I just wanted to walk in and say that.

Tanya Wexler: That's okay. That's why I gave everyone on the movie, actor and every crew member, one on their first day of the shoot. I was just like, "That's what we're doing!" Oh, really? What kind?

Tanya Wexler: A little bullet vibrator… Simple, inexpensive, I guess introductory. [laughs] Obviously, everyone knew the subject matter and were into it, but were any of them a little bit embarrassed at times?

Tanya Wexler: Oh, I'm sure people were a little bit embarrassed, but if it was off-putting in any way, they didn't let me know. I think that would have been kind of a weird way to start a new job, where you're like, "Actually, I'm really not interested in what this movie's about. It kind of freaks me out." I mean, unless it's a horror film or something… People took it in the spirit it was intended, had a laugh. I think we all take ourselves far too seriously, and while in the film we touch on a lot of serious subject matter, the point is it's supposed to be fun. It's fun and let's not get crazy about it.

Hysteria Even if the Victorians didn't really realize it was sexual, it's still fun.

Tanya Wexler: Exactly. And I think part of the big denial that the Victorians had, and that we have about things, is about taking everything too seriously. There's a lot of really serious stuff in the world, and people kind of ask me, "What's the message of the movie?" I'm like, it's a romantic comedy, dude. It's not trying to change the whole world. Like I said, it talks about serious things but that all grew out of character and the kind of central insanity [is] the vibrator was invented in Victorian England… It's a labor-saving device for a dude, which I think is funny! It's awesome, too. I'm happy to appropriate the invention, but that makes me laugh. My message was it's all supposed to be a bit of fun. It doesn't take a doctor, you know what I mean? And you're in charge of your own happiness. It's not trying to solve a bunch of problems in, I don't know, gender and politics and stuff over the years. Would you peg it as a feminist romantic comedy?

Tanya Wexler: Well, it's a romantic comedy that, I don't know -- I guess people take the word feminism in all different ways. I have never particularly shied away from it or had a problem with it or ever thought it was anything particularly weird, you know? I guess it's a charged word, so it slightly depends on how one sees the meaning of the word. It's very Clintonian. But for me, I think it just means basic empowerment for everyone and equal opportunity, right? Like, feminism for me is not about everything is the same, 'cause that would be silly. I'm all about diversity. If everything's the same, you're standing on one stilt. So feminism, for me, is about equal opportunity, and then what you do and how you make your choices is then up to you and not up to someone else. And in that way, of course it's feminist, but if you take feminism to be, like, men under the boot of women, well, no, I'm not really interested in that. But I think, weirdly, there's been such an imbalance for so long that I think people expect that what you're talking about is swinging the pendulum in the opposite way instead of centering it. It's the type of word that might give a publicist or a marketing person a heart attack. As you say, there are many different flavors of feminism, and it's a shame that people don't realize there's a very humanist-based feminism, and you can still say it's feminism. To say I'm a feminist and not be scared to say that.

Tanya Wexler: I just never even really gave it a thought until recently, which is funny, but no one's ever tried to muscle me. I suppose if you see Charlotte, you would imagine why! It's not really my style. A friend of mine called the film "the thinking woman's romantic comedy," and I loved that. I think that one can shut down when they hear the word romantic comedy and think it's too fluffy, although I think there are great ones and I love them, because I like comedy and I'm very romantic, but I think of myself as a thinking woman. I know most women do, but I think [that] puts it in that right perspective -- it's still really a romantic comedy, but it doesn't shy away from the stuff… our lives are about. And I think the best movies and comedies and dramas or whatever go headlong into it and make it entertaining at the same time.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Hysteria (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics) What's really interesting is looking at it through this cultural lens where it seems, as a modern person, how can they not realize this is sexual? 

Tanya Wexler: Sure, I think that's true a little bit. We're in our world and our lives right now, and it's very hard to see the kind of coding, the scripts we're operating out of, and it takes stepping outside of it to see it… I thought of the doctors as almost like a certain kind of modern-day cosmetic surgeon or something. Like the idea of, do you remember when we put botulinum toxin in our foreheads? What we think is important and the way we conceive of our family or this or that is constantly evolving and changing, and I find it's best to kind of exploit that with humor.

And that's why Monty Python is a huge influence, and Mel Brooks, and this is a much more, you know, whatever, refined approach to that… I also wasn't interested in making a movie where the women were all victims. Oh, those doctors are taking advantage of those poor women! How can they do that? I'm sure that happened a lot… I think women are much more interesting and are not just either victims or doormats or madonnas or whatever. Even as a comedy, I just thought, these four women -- our totally different ages -- we're going to show them having orgasms. That's awesome. [laughs] And it's funny, and it's not funny because we're making fun of them, it's funny because they're having fun and laughing, and we're laughing with them, very much.

Categories: Film Festivals, Interviews
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