Sexuality and Other Female (Film) Troubles

Posted on 13 May 2012


Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy in “Hysteria” directed by Tanya Wexler.
Published: May 11, 2012

Liam Daniel/Sony Pictures Classics
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy in “Hysteria” directed by Tanya Wexler.

“THE plague of our times,” a character declares in “Hysteria,” Tanya Wexler’s new romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England, “stems from an overactive uterus.” Based loosely on real events and opening on Friday, the film stars Hugh Dancy as Mortimer, a charming, forward-thinking doctor, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte, a champion of women’s rights.

Though its period detail and depiction of naïve men trying to “cure” hysterical women through pelvic massage seems hilariously out of date, there are moments when issues of women’s rights raised (lightly) in the film feel surprisingly relevant. But more than anything, “Hysteria” serves as a reminder that female sexuality is still an unusual subject on screen.

There are signs, however, that this may be changing. “Girls” on HBO has attracted attention for its frank depiction of sex, and Lena Dunham’s role as a show runner gives her rare authority to depict sexuality from a woman’s perspective. It’s a role that’s equally rare in film: female directors accounted for just 5 percent of the top-grossing domestic movies last year, a report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found.

Josh Haner/The New York Times
Tanya Wexler

New and recent films by Ms. Wexler, Sarah Polley (“Take This Waltz”), Malgorzata Szumowska (“Elles”), Julie Delpy (“2 Days in New York”) and several others challenge this norm and give audiences the chance to see how women deal with issues of female sexuality, whether it’s orgasms or body image.

“I wanted to make a Merchant-Ivory movie with vibrators,” Ms. Wexler, 42, said sitting in an office in Midtown Manhattan, her long brown hair bouncing every time she let out a booming laugh. “And in doing that, strangely, we’ve shone a light. Can you believe we’re still arguing about these same topics 100 years later — women’s rights over their own body? If a woman is behind the camera, these issues can be explored more than they have in the past.”

Still, “I just wanted a movie I wanted to go see,” she added. “I wasn’t trying to do a women’s studies class.”

Ms. Wexler’s own experiences informed the humorous — and chaste — treatment scenes, in which women of different ages are “cured.” For instance she recalled the situation many women find themselves in at the gynecologist’s office, feet in stirrups while doctors chitchat. “You’re like, ‘Dude I’m sitting here,’ ” she said.

Working from a script by the husband-and-wife team Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, Ms. Wexler spent close to seven years working to get the film made with the producer Tracey Becker, who said it was not an easy sell. “We saw the marketing potential,” Ms. Becker said, “but when it came right down to it, we had this script which dealt with these very blush-inducing themes, and most of the time it was in the hands of a male executive, who had the veto power.”

“Hysteria” represents something of a departure from the traditional studio film aimed at women, and Ms. Wexler, Ms. Polley and others said there was a hunger for more movies that don’t just end with a kiss and marriage.

“I like a good wedding-dress movie, like all girls, if they’re good,” Ms. Wexler said, “but it’s just not all we want.”

Ms. Polley’s “Take This Waltz,” which will be released next month, starts a few years after the wedding, with Michelle Williams as a young married woman confronting temptation. “I wanted to look at what happens to sexuality over time, and it’s something we don’t talk about,” Ms. Polley said in a telephone interview.

In part because men have been in the director’s seat, “the cliché is always the woman has a headache or is tired of sex, or there’s some kind of burning out of sexuality, and I couldn’t remember an example of the opposite — that men get bored and men have a dropping-off of sexual intensity too,” Ms. Polley said. “Maybe men don’t show that because it’s emasculating, but it does happen to men in long-term relationships.”

Nudity, Ms. Polley said, was also important for her to address as a director. “Every time you see a naked woman’s body on screen, it’s either in a sexual context — or if it’s an older woman it’s the scene in ‘About Schmidt,’ where Kathy Bates gets in to the hot tub and the whole audience is supposed to scream, and Jack Nicholson is so horrified,” she said. “I’ve seen that over and over, and I find that really offensive that women’s bodies are either objectified or used for comic value.”

In “Take This Waltz” Ms. Polley included a shower scene in a health club with women of all ages naked in a completely casual way. “That scene came specifically out of being a female filmmaker,” she said, “I would have maybe pretended a few years ago that I just want to make stories like everyone else, and my gender didn’t matter, but I think that’s naïve. Certainly with this film I was very conscious of the way I was handling nudity and sexuality.”

For actresses, having a female director can influence the dynamic during sex scenes. Ms. Gyllenhaal said that a female director changes the feel of a film. “The most interesting sex scenes that I’ve done or seen are the ones that are truthful from a women’s perspective,” she said. “Instead of what I think everybody got used to in the ’80s and ’90s: Put on a black Victoria’s Secret demi bra and be lit perfectly and arch your back.”

“That’s supposed to look like sex,” she added, “but that doesn’t look like sex for most people, and if it does, I think you’re probably missing out on a lot.”

Juliette Binoche, who stars in “Elles,” Ms. Szumowska’s graphic look at student prostitutes in Paris that was released last month, also noticed the difference a female director makes. “Because I’m used to working with male directors, working with a woman there was a new feeling I had which was related to something more personal, it felt like an auto-portrait at some moments,” she said. “And so the responsibility of acting with a director of the same sex, it’s something of a mirroring feeling.”

Ms. Wexler and her colleagues said that making movies that focus on female sexuality also meant risking being pigeonholed as a director only for women. Noting that Marc Webb followed up the romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer” with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Ms. Wexler said: “I doubt that I’m getting ‘The Avengers’ or ‘Justice League.’ I want to do movies for women, but I don’t only want to do that.”

For Ms. Wexler, and others, more films by women about women is no doubt progress, but, she added, that inevitably presents another set of challenges. “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.”