Romantic comedy was once a noble genre, a place to work out not only will they or won’t they, but why or why not, and should they or shouldn’t they? The Lady Eve may be a goofy romp about a conwoman and her beer-heir mark, but Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda’s spiky courtship is all about how much we can overcome deeply ingrained prejudices about class and sexual experience. In When Harry Met Sally, the two main characters talked their way through what makes a good relationship for a decade—and worked out their attitudes towards their careers and themselves as friends—before they got together. And movies like Annie Hall defied the traditional meaning of comedy—it ends with a breakup, not a marriage—to acknowledge both the power and potential for heartbreak of modern relationships.
But in recent years, romantic comedies have gone timid. In the quest for PG-13 ratings, they can’t say much about sex. And in their desire to rake in dollars, an interchangeable array of blonde or blondish heroines with disposable jobs in PR and fashion have spent ninety minutes resisting an similarly dull assortment of disc jockeys, television producers, and businessmen. A few R-rated romantic comedies from Judd Apatow and the creators in his orbit have broken the mold, but they haven’t been enough to change the conventional wisdom of the industry.
All of this is the reason Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria, about Mortimer Granville’s (Hugh Dancy) invention of the vibrator in Victorian England, is simultaneously a delight and a relief. There is a will-they-or-won’t-they couple at its heart, of course: when Mortimer, who believes in the germ theory of medicine, takes a job with women’s physician Dr. Charles Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), he meets Dr. Dalrymple’s very different daughters, dutiful Emily (Felicity Jones) and Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a socialist feminist who runs a London settlement house. While Mortimer plans to take over Dr. Dalrymple’s practice and becomes engaged to Emily, he’s drawn to Charlotte, whose ideals appeal to him even as she rejects the diagnosis of hysteria, which gives Mortimer his living, as an attempt to disguise the true dissatisfactions women experience. And when her political work gets Charlotte put on trial and branded hysterical, Mortimer must decide if he will let her be institutionalized and subject to an involuntary hysterectomy or maintain his devotion to the diagnosis that’s made his career. I spoke with Wexler about the declining stakes of romantic comedy, the importance of careers and values in successful relationships, and how she ended up making romantic comedy for men. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the things you brought up was the decline of the romantic comedy, and this is very much a romantic comedy. I was curious if you thought that reflected the inevitable homogenization of any genre when Hollywood gets their hands on it, or whether consumers have actually backed away from romantic comedies where the issues are larger than will they or won’t they?
I think a lot of romantic comedies revolve around will they or won’t they. And yes, will they or won’t they get together is where ours is, but it’s not quite the central question. It’s more how will they? I think a lot of the better writing in romantic comedies these days has tended towards the R-rated romantic comedies, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids…I think Knocked Up, they take the characters, you put them in really hard situations, and you see how they deal. I think that’s a good thing. But the kind of witty banter, the kind of Hepburn-Cary Grant stuff is just not around as much, and it just felt right for this story, with this quirk of history.
It seems like in a lot of romantic comedies, the characters don’t really get treated like adults. Their careers raen’t particularly important to them. It’s a little infantilizing. One of the things that’s fun about Charlotte is whoever she ends up with has to share her values.
And her passion for her work. I think that’s where they connect first and foremost is they’re passionate about their work and what they believe in. They’re both true believers in their own way…I think one of the things you try to figure out is what kind of movie you’re trying to make. And I knew, on a very core level, I was making a romantic comedy. In that, I think the fundamental kind of question is about how and who you fall in love with, what draws you to people.
The movie is a lot about progressives in different ways. Mortimer, his character is a medical progressive. The rest of his life, he kind of fits tidily into the box. It doesn’t make sense for him to buck the system because it’s set up for him. But in the end, he can’t deny the truth in front of his face. His friend Edmund, played by Rupert Everett, is a progressive in science and technology, and he also doesn’t fit neatly into the box as a gay character. But he is part of the aristocracy, and he’s wealthy, and has ways around it. And Charlotte is the girl who can’t help it. She knows it would be easier not to raise her hand in the back of the classroom, so to speak, but she still has something she has to say. She knows it would be easier for her, but she doesn’t know how to be anything else. She’s a truth-teller.
In this kind of film, what their job is illuminates their character’s journey. It’s also important because it’s how it all happens. Because he’s a doctor who gets a job treating women for hysteria, that’s how he meets her. I’ve been looking at a lot of other films right now, and we’re always trying to get away from anybody’s job because it’s about the relationship. And sometimes it can be very cheesy and stupid to resolve something about the relationship through they achieve something at work. It’s kind of sideways. But in this case, I think so much of the film is about acknowledging the truth that’s right in front of you even if culture wants you to pretend it’s something else. And the only way these two are ever going to get together, the big obstacle between them is their differing opinions about what the truth is and what’s acceptable. Until they can find a way to each other as passionate people who are true believers, they’ll never be together. And they’re not even trying to be together…It’s when he wakes up that their relationship starts to work out.
One of the things that struck me about the movie is its argument that women’s liberation can be good for men, too. Mortimer is confined to these gender roles and expectations. Charles, his profession has told him his daughter is insane and he can’t communicate with her. They need to be liberated from those limitations, too.
I wasn’t really interested in the battle of the sexes or an us against them narrative. There’s a kind of phobia of feminism, it’s that somehow we’re accusing them of having the power, we’re going to take the power away from them and make them be our housekeepers because we’ve been theirs, some kind of completely reductive thing. We’ve all evolved a lot in our thinking, and we really stand on the shoulders of our foremothers, and I’ve learned a lot through the various struggles for equality. it’s not that everything has to be the same. The world is too specialized for that having nothing to do with gender…We just want equal opportunity. Becuase when you don’t have that, it all gets weird and distorted, and ultimtaely starts to do weird things to keep the status quo when it’s untenable.
So yeah. I made a feminist romantic comedy about a guy. We joked it could have been called The Education of Mortimer Granville…We grew the narrative. We didn’t say ‘let’s make a feminist movie,’ or ‘let’s make a movie with this or that politics.’ What we said is, ‘that’s a funny idea. The invention of the vibrator happened in Victorian England: why? Because there was this catchall diagnosis of hysteria. Why was there a catchall diagnosis? Because women had, particularly upper-middle class women, had a very narrow box to fit in, and if you didn’t, people didn’t know what to do with tht so they medicalized that. So there had to be a treatment.’ And this was one of the treatements. And then what we realized that the vibrator was invented for a man because his hand got tired. It was a labor-saving device for a guy. And it was a profit center. Instead of one patient in an hour, you could turn four patients in an hour. And when you go down that road, you usually have someone saying ‘Stop! That’s madness!’ And that was Charlotte. She embodied that sense of it’s supposed to be fun. It doesn’t take a doctor. There are real problems women have, and that’s different…Let’s call the things that are causing this discontentment what they are: lack of connection to your husband, lack of opportunity, lack of whatever. And she really says it pretty plainly in the script. And he has to wake up, and we have to push that guy pretty far in terms of ‘Yes, I’ll look down the barrel. Am I going to send this woman off to be butchered to preserve the illusion?’…I thikn people’s ability to wake up comes at really dramatic moments…We push it to a pretty serious place because the pressure on the character needs to be serious.
It’s also really nice to have a romantic comedy heroine who has really clearly defined politics. I can’t imagine a romantic comedy today even giving a character a political affiliation out of fear of offending someone.
Charlotte’s speech in the classroom, where she says she’s a socialist, Charlotte’s speech where she says she knows she’ll live to see a day where women control over their own bodies and women have the right to vote…When that was written, we almost thought it was too much, a feel-goody, look where we’ve come from, don’t we feel good about ourselves as feminist, and women, and people of conscience. Even when we premiered at Toronto, I remember magazine interviews saying ‘Now, obviously her politics today are not that out there. They were hugely radical and so risky maybe back then. People were institutionalized for being suffragettes.’…In September we were feeling that. And today, it feels like it’s playing more ironic. We all that that was settled. She was looking forward going ‘maybe this will happen’ and we were like ‘it finally has.’ And we were so proud as women filmmakers, and people, male and female across the group who made the movie. And now going ‘oh, maybe the part about rights over our own body is a little more ironic.’
Sandra Fluke is Charlotte Dalrymple.
That’s not anything you can do or plan for. That is crazy zeitgeist weirdness.
The courtroom scene when Charlotte is on trial is so effective and upsetting, in part because it struck me that so often in romcoms, the obstacles are generated out of thin air, and this obstacle to Charlotte’s freedom and her relationship to Mortimer was real, and big, and frightening.
I think good wriitng and good screenwriting is hard. I think there’s very few movies that really get it all right. We, I think, are a kind of love it or hate it movie. I’ve gotten harsh reviews and they tend to be about two things. First, [it's that the movie] wasn’t raucous or bold enough, or it wasn’t subversive enough. To me, the vibrator movie you can bring your mom to is pretty subversive…It ended to be older, straight guys over a certain age would write more curmudeonly review…If there were more, varied romantic comedies, our little entertainment would be another way to think about these things, would be fun, wouldn’t have to shoulder such a big burden. Once you’re making something that’s supposed to be entertaining and to utilize certain conventions, instead of being held to the Hollywood romantic comedy standsards, we’re being held to the Oscar standards and falling short. We’re supposed to be the feminist tome of the century. You can’t clear that bar.
It seems like some genres, like superhero movies, have permission to be hugely entertaining and to get into the issues. The Dark Knight is about explosions and traps and Heath Leger in a lot of makeup, but it’s also about the security state. I don’t know if that’s a guy thing.
I think it’s slipped in, and it’s much more backgroundy. They don’t have the character talking as much…I highly doubt that the reviews of Battleship will talk about how this is or isn’t a meditation on the military-industrial complex. Maybe some articles in like, Mother Jones or something, but our mainstream reviews are ‘blah, blah, blah it’s a feminist football.’ I’m not running away from it, but it’s what my characters are talking about. It’s how they’re finding each other…I think humor is a great way into a lot of these conversations. And I think the conversation is really about sexuality and the shame and discomfort we feel about talking about it, our bodies, which we carry around with us all day long and what they’re meant ot do. People need permission to enjoy this and laugh at this. It can be funny and not silly. It can be serious and not solemn.