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.