Once upon a time, I was pretty excited about seeing Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria, a film about the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s as a cure for hysteria in women. “I wanted to make a Merchant-Ivory movie with vibrators,” Wexler explained in an entertaining interview last spring. What, I asked, could go wrong?

Pretty much everything, as it turns out.

To be precise, what goes wrong is:

  1. Storyline that seeks neither historical accuracy nor three-dimensionality.
  2. Jaunty background music that signals in every scene that this is secretly a Disney film made in 1977.
  3. Dialogue that is so broad and unfunny that you sometimes expect the entire film to become a terrible musical, à la “Springtime for Hitler,” shouted from a stage by amateur actors.
  4. The entire narrative is foreshadowed in Scenes 1 and 2.
  5. Utterly improbable use of the law to speed along the narrative.
  6. Maggie Gyllenhaal appears so distracted by her own mastery of an Emma Thompson accent that she stumbles into every scene like the actorly equivalent of a bull. (See #3 above.)
  7. Token ginger-haired housemaid/reformed prostitute lives up to every stereotype. Not that she is out of place.
  8. And yes, the story takes the independent-minded reformer and feminist and … ultimately marries her off.

And then there are shots like this. [Didion shakes her head, slowly and mournfully.]

I can’t believe how much Hysteria represents a squandered opportunity. I mean, funding for movies made by women doesn’t grow on trees, people. More important: I got this film out of a RedBox machine last night because I needed light, comic fare for the end of a long day — and it proves merely to be grating. (I will admit that Rupert Everett had his moments, but I’m mad at him right now, thanks to our friend Michael.)

Want to know the difference between this and a Merchant-Ivory film? Let’s just say that the vibrators were the very least of it.

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Doesn’t Maggie Gyllenhaal have a special glow?

What’s not to like about this news? Hysteria, a new female-directed, female-produced romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator to cure hysteria in women during the 19th century, will be out in limited release in the US this Friday, May 18!

In a nice interview, director Tanya Wexler (and directors Sarah Polley and Malgorzata Szumowska, both of whom have new films with imminent release dates) and their female stars talk about portraying female sexuality onscreen and how it differs from that portrayed by male directors. But ultimately Wexler concludes on a somewhat grim note about the fate of female directors in Hollywood:

“What we’re doing as women by making these small, little movies, because that’s all they’ll give us, is we’re making things that don’t make as much money, that have a smaller audience and are harder to get right, and then we’re wondering why we don’t get bigger movies. That is very self-reinforcing. I would love me a big Hollywood movie. ‘Wonder Woman’? Give me a call.”

I totally get it now.

I’ve never quite understood why Keira Knightley is an A-list star, nor why she gets such good roles (like Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, and Never Let Me Go) – until I saw her in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011). It always seemed to me she was being cast against type. Whereas those earlier films insisted she was a quintessential English rose, as Lizzie Bennet in P&P she appeared to me more likely to bite one of her co-stars than to to impress anyone with her fine eyes.

What Cronenberg gets (and I didn’t, till now) is that Knightley’s angular, toothy, twitchy affect shouldn’t be suppressed but mined instead.

Now that I’ve finally seen A Dangerous Method, I can’t imagine another actor taking on the role of the hysteric Sabina Spielrein to such effect. Jewish, Russian, fiercely intelligent and tortured by her inner demons, Sabina is the perfect dark mirror sister of Jung’s blonde and blue-eyed wife (Sarah Gadon), who always appears placid, wide-eyed and proper, and sometimes apologizes for errors such as giving birth to a daughter rather than a son. Now that’s a rose of a girl.

Maybe she seems exaggerated, but Jung’s wife embodies the self-control and physical containment of their elite class as well as their whiteness. No wonder Jung (Michael Fassbender) is so thrown by Sabina. For all her physical contortions, Sabina is also open to change, open to the darkest of insights. She opens up her mind and her memories to him with stunning willingness, revealing black thoughts associated with dark sexual urges. The more she ceases repressing those memories and associations, the more she reconciles them and begins to heal — and begins to use her quicksilver smarts in a way that shows her full embrace of the “talking cure”. No wonder she captivates Jung’s imagination, which is only the beginning of his growing disloyalty to his wife.

Knightley’s impossible skinniness only enhances her performance here. Whereas in most other films her body gets presented to us as yet another ridiculous size-00 slap in the face to the rest of us fat pigs (and don’t you forget it, Ashley Judd), in A Dangerous Method her body exemplifies a lifetime of self-punishing neurosis. There’s nothing more improbable than seeing her heavy dark eyebrows and her olive skin — and hearing about her sexual arousal via humiliation — all the while bound up in those cruel corsets and lacy, white, high-necked dresses that on any other woman would be persuasive signifiers of her chastity.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that what I found most impressive about Knightley’s performance was the way she showed how the later, “healed” Spielrein — the one who no longer screams and juts out her chin — was a recognizable incarnation of the earlier hysteric. Her clenched and slightly hunched shoulders, her black looks, her tight mouth. She’s a whirlwind of intellect and energy, and the performance is brilliant. As the excellent JB writes over at The Fantom Country, “Even in relatively calmer moments, she seems trapped inside a state of ceaseless panic, caught, gasping for air, in the dragnet of some trawler that never sleeps.”

This is especially important for the contrast between her corporeal presence versus that of Jung and Freud, who exert an absurd degree of self-control and containment, like disembodied brains. When she kisses Jung for the first time, his weak response is to note, “It’s generally thought that the man should be the one to take the initiative.” When someone refers to the “darker differences” between the two, we know those differences are both racial and sexual — and that Spielrein is the dark one, the one whose vagina has needs and rages, and smells like a real woman’s vagina (thanks to Kartina Richardson’s terrific piece, “Keira Knightley’s Vagina”). It makes me wish that Knightley rather than Natalie Portman had appeared as the lead in Black Swan — again, a statement I never thought I’d make.

Spielrein and Jung’s other patient, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), both profess to a startling optimism about analysis: “Our job is to make our patients capable of freedom,” Gross pronounces, a sentiment Spielrein shares but cannot realize. Her own ecstasy peaks as Jung gives her erotic spankings; clearly, humiliation still retains its primary charge. The film doesn’t explore the gendered nature of hysteria, which brought so many women low during those decades a hundred years ago, but it does highlight how one’s freedom was limited by other cultural boundaries — most notably race. Spielrein looks genuinely crushed when her new interlocutor, Freud, pushes her down with the observation, “We’re Jews, Miss Spielrein — and Jews we will always be.”

We don’t very often call it hysteria anymore, but we still see manifestations of inexplicable corporeal neurosis in girls and women that defy explanation, as in the strangely infectious case in upstate New York this year. How amazing it would be to find a filmmaker to address the subject. I’ve always thought that someone could take the 1690s Salem witch hysteria as a case study, Arthur Miller-style, to try to explore some of the contributing factors behind such mass outbursts of tics, twitches, and personal misery. And I’d love to have Knightley involved again, honestly.

People love to talk about the synergy between Cronenberg and his frequent male lead, Mortensen, as being one of the great director-actor combinations of the last decade. But now that I’ve seen what Cronenberg got out of Knightley, I want him to unearth new roles for her instead so we can see more of what she can really do once she lets go of the English rose routine. I totally get it now: Knightley can act. And I’m genuinely looking forward to more of it.

Wow.  See this film:  “The Headless Woman,” or “La mujer sin cabeza,” a 2009 Argentinian film by director Lucrecia Martel.  My best analogy is that it’s a modern-day The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s canonic 19th-century story of a woman suffering from “nervous depression” and driven to madness by the “resting cure,” which prescribed that she remain in a room, stripped of responsibilities as a means of restoring her to health.

21st-century women may have pharmaceutical solutions for depression, but as “The Headless Woman” shows, they too are insulated in ways that might prompt the same kind of madness.  The film is concerned with Veró (María Onetto), the wealthy, pampered, middle-aged woman enmeshed in family, work, and home — until one day, as she drive home and is momentarily distracted by her cell phone, she hits something.  The camera pauses on her for a long time, watching her recover; when she finally pulls away, we see a dog dead on the road.  But there are now two ghostly little handprints on her driver’s side window.  Is a dog all she hit?

Though we don’t know what happened, we quickly realize that Veró is deeply affected by this event (does she have amnesia? a traumatic repression of the events? a dangerous concussion?), yet no one else notices.  With her blonde dye job and bland half-smile always plastered on, she can’t even go through the motions of her life — so it’s lucky she’s surrounded by servants, her husband, and her relatives, all of whom fail to register that anything’s wrong.  As we see everything through her eyes, we are as disoriented as she is.  Who is this man in the house — her husband or someone else?  Why is she here at the dentist’s office?  Every time she appears mildly bewildered, one of the many servants or men steps up to take things out of her hands, shepherd her to her next appointment, remove responsibility from her.

By the time she hesitatingly tells her husband that she fears she hit someone, he assures her that it can’t be true.  “It was just a scare,” he says patronizingly, unconvincingly.  With that apologetic little smile on her face, does she agree?  Or simply acquiesce?  In the meantime, she has nothing to do — her languid movements are only prompted by the random doorbell, a phone call, or the need to move out of someone’s way.  Cared for by an endless stream of working-class employees and paternalistic men, her life has little meaning or direction — so how can she bear responsibility? 

Perhaps it’s simply madness, an early version of the dementia her mother suffers from.  One day, in her mother’s bedroom, her mother rambles a bit, as she’s given to do.  But this time Veró begins to see her mother’s phantoms and generalized disorientation.  “Don’t look at him,” her mother says out of the blue.  “They’re … the house is full of them.  Shhh!  The dead.  They’re leaving now.  Don’t look at them.  Ignore them and they’ll leave.”  As a little boy gets up from under the bed and leaves the room — is he real, or is this the ghost of the little boy Veró might have killed? — her mother continues:  “I would have preferred modernity.  Here you move and everything squeaks.”

I can’t believe this film didn’t get more attention, that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award.  It’s a haunting, unsettling statement about the lives of women in a safely cushioned world, where madness lurks.