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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Maggie Gyllenhaal in HYSTERIA and 2011 Cannes Jury Prize POLISSE!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Although not exactly the most emotionally deep treatment of this subject, I was certainly charmed by the Tanya Wexler-directed look at the state of the psychological world that led to the invention of the hand-held vibrator (early versions were electric powered, so they had to be plugged in). HYSTERIA is the story of forward-thinking, youthful doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), whose ideas on germ theory make him virtually unemployable in Victorian England. But one day he stumbles into the offices of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), one of the city's leading experts on ailments of the female nervous system, collectively known as "hysteria."

Dr. Dalrymple's catch-all diagnosis is almost always cured (at least temporarily) by manual manipulation of his patients' nether regions, and the mostly well-to-do women leave his office wholly satisfied for at least a few days. The esteemed healer decides to take on Granville as his assistant and teach him the elaborate rituals that go into a therapy session, which include an ornate privacy screen, a precise combination of oils, and absolutely no sexual tension despite what's going on south of the border.

Granville's station in life improves and Dr. Dalrympe even considers him a suitable candidate to court his daughter Emily (Felicity Jones, last seen in LIKE CRAZY). But Granville seems more fascinated by the doctor's other daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is an early template for an outspoken, sexy, feminist social worker; it works.

But when Granville is unable to complete his duties due to severe hand cramps, he turns to his filthy rich inventor friend Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), who loves to play with electricity and invent gadgets, for help coming up with something that could spare his hand while still providing the relief his female patients pay for. A few tweaks to an electric feather duster, and the vibrator is born—in a very funny scene, I should add.

I have no idea how historically accurate HYSTERIA is, and I really don't care. These characters are bright and enjoyable to spend time with, especially Everett's openly gay, money-is-no-object character who is either given all the best lines, or he just took them. I'm fast becoming a fan of Hugh Dancy, and with this film, he gets to let loose a subtle comedy streak that I wasn't familiar with. The film has a few strangely dark moments, mostly revolving around the women and the connecting of heartbreak and psychological diagnosis. I loved those scenes, although a courtroom sequence feels completely artificial.

The key to HYSTERIA's success is its acting and its pacing, which is accelerated and enjoyable. Gyllenhaal might be a little too modern for her character, but I was so sucked in by her seemingly abrasive qualities (I love abuse) that I can't imagine this story without her. Wexler (niece to the legendary cinematographer Haskel Wexler) and company give the subject just enough weight to deliver the necessary kick. It's tough not to at least smile during this somewhat lightweight story that is elevated when it remembers to be informative and thoughtful occasionally.

This thoroughly engaging and unnerving hit film from France offers an honest and realistic portrayal of the men and women who make up the Paris police department's Child Protection Unit (something like a Special Victims Unit in the states), which handles cases when children are hurt physically or sexually. It may sound seedy or exploitative, but POLISSE doesn't come across that way. The film splits its time between the unit's cases (many of which are based on actual investigations) and the member's personal lives, which are made stressful and taxing by the nature of their work. Both sides of the equation are equally interesting, and the personal drama ends up bleeding over into the job.

And the cast of actors are mostly people I wasn't familiar with as performers, including French rap star Joeystarr and the director/co-writer herself, Maïwenn, who appears as a shy photographer embedded with the team for an extended period. POLISSE covers a variety of cases, including one where the child is lying, to another where the perpetrator doesn't even bother denying his crime because he has influence and connections and know he will get away with his deeds without punishment. The most fascinating moments in the movie are the interrogation sequences, where two or three investigators go after these alleged criminals with precision verbal tactics that are wonderfully complex. The officers' reaction to cases run from full-blown rage to inappropriate laughter, which ends up being contagious. It was also interesting to find out how the CPU members are regarded by their fellow officers (not highly, as it turns out).

Without turning into a soap opera, POLISSE also digs deep into the personal lives of the team members, going through broken marriages, affairs, psychological breaks, and new romances. In the end, Maïwenn (and co-writer/co-star Emmanuelle Bercot) gives the audience something that is rarely found in even the finest dramas—a complete profile of these characters that shows us both their home face and their game face at work. And not surprisingly, we are able to care deeply about these stressed-out human beings who have to hear stories about some of the worst behavior that humans have to offer. But what arrises from this situation is a tightly knit family of co-workers who hold each other up so they can do a job that few are capable of stomaching. It's a fascinating piece of filmmaking that deservedly won the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. You absolutely must see it

-- Steve Prokopy
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