Tribeca: Maggie Gyllenhaal on Sex Scenes From a Woman’s Perspective
By JULIE BLOOM
Ricardo Vaz Palma, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
“The plague of our times,” a character declares in “Hysteria,” Tanya Wexler’s new film, “stems from an overactive uterus.” The time is Victorian England and the focus is the invention of the vibrator. The romantic comedy, which plays at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday and opens commercially on May 18, stars Hugh Dancy as Mortimer, a forward-thinking doctor, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte, a champion of women’s rights and the rebellious daughter of Mr. Dancy’s mentor, as well as his romantic match.
Though its period detail and depiction of naïve men trying to “cure” hysterical women through womb massage seems hilariously out of date, there are moments when issues of women’s rights raised (lightly) in the film feel surprisingly relevant. We spoke with Ms. Gyllenhaal by telephone about “Hysteria” and why there are still so few good sex scenes. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q.Do you think the light tone makes a movie about female sexuality more palatable? Why are there so few good movies about the subject?
A.I’ve talked to so many people about this. I’ve been interviewed about this all over the world and because of how they finance movies now, I’ve talked to women in Norway and Italy and Finland, Spain and all these women kind of say the same thing, which is there aren’t a lot of movies like this. And why is it even in all those different cultures where they’re not particularly prudish and open to talking about female sexuality? Why, when they watch the movie, is there a kind of hysteria? When I saw it in Toronto, people were laughing in this kind of hysterical way, like, oh my God, an orgasm — and me, too, in a way. I hadn’t been around for the orgasm stuff because Charlotte doesn’t get the chance with the vibrator, and so I hadn’t seen it and I had the same feeling, I got a little flushed and I got a little shy.
Q.Why is sex still such a complicated thing to tackle on film?
A.I’ve thought a lot about women in movies and sex and sex scenes. The question is why, if half of the adult population is women who have sex, why is it difficult to see? I personally think this doesn’t necessarily account for this movie, but the most interesting sex scenes that I’ve done or seen are the ones that are truthful from a women’s perspective — 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. But that doesn’t look like sex for most people, and if it does, I think you’re probably missing out on a lot. The more truthful you can be, the sexier it is and the more uncomfortable it can make you sitting next to a stranger in a movie theater.
Q.As an actress, do you look for roles that are more honest about sex?
A.Someone was talking to me about a film-school character trope, these women in their 20s, quirky, happy-go-lucky, don’t-need-anything kind of girl — that romantic comedy fantasy. But the problem with that fantasy — and I’ve been offered so many parts like that — mostly those women don’t have a lot of need. So you see a man kind of go, “This woman doesn’t care what I do.” I think everybody has great need and that’s so complicated. If somebody needs you, if you need them, all of a sudden you’re going to have responsibility and that’s part of what’s so scary about sex to begin with. In the case of “Hysteria” all of these women have massive need, and some of them are so unhappy and they’re not functioning.
Q.Did you think having a female director was important?
A.If you’re directed by a woman, it’s going to change the feel of the movie. I remember doing “Sherrybaby,” which was also directed by a woman [Laurie Collyer] and I was doing a really complicated sex scene where the guy in it was like, “That’s not sexy,” and we were both like, “Yes it is.” It’s not what you think would be sexy, but it is. There’s something about having a woman see things more like you that can be really helpful.
Q.What about these scenes makes them work or not?
A.There’s been such a history of sex scenes that don’t speak to me at all. So when you have the opportunity to do a sex scene and still be a real, thinking person in the midst of it, it can be an incredible way of expressing something about who you’re playing and something about the story. Sex on screen can be one of the most compelling ways of telling a story. Not if you stop acting — I think a lot of people stop acting and start pretending that they’re in a soft-core porn. But the women who don’t I get so interested in. It’s something we don’t talk a lot about in our culture and all of sudden there’s a comparable experience, like I had sex in this way and it felt disappointing and lonely or I’ve had sex in this way and experienced a connection I never could have felt any other way. That’s where I get really interested. Even if you’re talking to your friends, are you getting into the absolute deepest intimacies of it? Maybe, but to see someone act it well, it can make you feel like you have a connection to other human beings.
Q.What was it like working with Hugh Dancy?
A.His character was hard. He has to make a massive philosophical change in the way he thinks about the world in general. Which I think must have been difficult for him. Because you kind of go: people have been having sex forever and women have been having orgasms, so these guys just all of a sudden truly believed that there was nothing sexual about it and they were just having paroxysms? Either they’re so massively disassociating and it’s terrifying, or they know it’s sexual and they can’t say, but what a hard thing to have to play.
Q.Do you think movies have gotten better about dealing with female sexuality?
A.In a lot of ways we have. In a lot of ways we haven’t. I do see some movies now and then [with] a sex scene I can relate to and I see a lot less of the ’90s version that I was describing before. I recently went to see “Girlfriends” [from 1978] and it was one of the first narrative movies directed by a woman here [Claudia Weill] and it had a huge effect because of that. She said afterward she made it because she was tired of going to the movies and feeling like the woman’s story was not her story and she was like the other friend way in the background. Even though there isn’t a lot of explicit sex in that movie, it’s about a girl in New York trying to get by and figure out who she is, and I related to it so much and that was made more than 30 years ago. What sex scenes have I liked recently? The sex in “Blue Valentine.” That was very sad and real.
Q.Have you thought at all about “Hysteria’s” relevance in this contentious season of political debate over women’s bodies?
A.It’s funny because I never thought this movie could really hold a political agenda. I don’t think you can ask it to except in a gentle way, and at the same time so many people have said to me, there’s a scene [where] I say I know one day women will vote and have access to education and have rights over their own bodies. And 100 years later we still haven’t gotten there. But my favorite thing was a woman in Italy said to me, “Which do you think has done more for women’s equality and emancipation, the vibrator or the dishwasher?”