Earlier this week, my wife and I saw “The Sessions,” a sweet little film written and directed by Ben Lewin. The film, based on a true story, chronicles the efforts of Mark O’Brien (played with great tenderness by John Hawkes), a severely disabled journalist and poet, to have sexual intercourse before he dies. This requires extraordinary efforts because Mark is severely disabled: in his youth, polio took from him the use of most of his body, leaving him control only of his head. He spends most of his day in an iron lung, and, at he age of 38, has never had a meaningful sexual encounter.
The film “launches” when Mark, in the course of researching a story about the sex lives of disabled people, learns of the existence of “sexual surrogates” – sex therapists whose therapeutic approach is to have intercourse with their clients so that their clients can learn by doing what they, and their partners, enjoy. Most of the film revolves around Mark’s relationship with the sexual surrogate he hires to help him achieve the only significant sexual experience he suspects he will have.
The film, as I say, is very sweet. Mark is successful in his endeavor; not only is he able to achieve his physical goals, he touches the surrogate emotionally in a way that she does not expect and is not prepared for. More than that, after the sessions are over (and, significantly, after a subsequent brush with death), Mark has the sexual confidence to win the heart of the first woman he sees upon waking up in the hospital, a woman who becomes his first and only true romantic partner. It’s a heartwarming story, and one would have to be a churl not to cheer Mark on, particularly since he is so self-deprecatingly charming throughout.
So I suppose I’ll have to be a churl.
The sexual surrogate, Cheryl, played (bravely and beautifully) by Helen Hunt is married, to a man named Josh (played by Adam Arkin). Josh does not work (he’s a “philosopher in his own mind” according to the script). Hunt has several nude scenes in the movie, most (but not all) of which involve her having sexual intercourse. There are also at least two scenes of Cheryl in bed with her husband. There is no overlap between these scenes – that is to say, Cheryl is never nude with her husband, and never has intercourse with him, or even shows any physical affection for him. What did you intend to convey by these choices?
To me, the sexlessness of Cheryl’s marriage looms over her increasing attachment to her disabled client, Mark (played with great tenderness by John Hawkes) – particularly since we know she has a bunch of rules to prevent her from becoming so attached. Has she been unable, for some reason, to sustain physical intimacy with a man she’s “stuck” with? Has her job effectively ruined her marital sex life? How did she wind up in this line of work, and when – was she already a surrogate when she met her husband? Or did she turn to surrogacy as an outlet given the trajectory of her marriage? What’s the connection between her husband’s “uselessness” and her attachment to the severely disabled Mark?
These questions gnawed at me, bothered me, because I don’t think this is what the movie is supposed to be about. The film wants to be a sex-positive film, and the story of Mark’s journey from innocence to experience. That journey didn’t require Mark and Cheryl to fall in love – and, indeed, they didn’t fall in love in real life; the relationship, as depicted in the film, is the principal departure from the true story. So why make that alteration?
I suspect the reason is dramatic – their story is a lot more interesting if it’s a love story. But, as I note above, those changes have material consequences for our perception of Cheryl, and of her profession, consequences that complicate the overall theme of the film. More than anything, I wanted to see whether how her experience with Mark affected the rest of her life – and particularly her marital life. And we never learn that.
Next question: Father Brendan, Mark’s principal confidant, played by William H. Macy. Why is he in the movie? To give Mark someone to talk to? Fair enough – but once you’ve introduced him, inevitably we’re going to begin to ask questions about his life. And the defining characteristic of his life is its celibacy. Father Brendan has chosen, voluntarily, the life that Mark has been doomed to by disease. Why? How does that shape his own understanding of Mark’s quest? How does Mark’s success affect him?
We never hear these questions asked, much less answered. We read, on William H. Macy’s face, a kind of depression from which his sessions with Mark are a reprieve. This is a man, I felt, who undertook something once – the vocation of priest – that no longer speaks to him particularly strongly. He’s weary. He still believes in the existence of God – that’s clear – but it’s no longer clear to him what God wants of him, or if He wants anything, in particular. He sees, in Mark, someone who is ready to take a risk that he, Father Brendan, would not dare to take himself, and he’s fascinated to learn how that risk pans out, and live vicariously through Mark. But we don’t know how sex plays into that question. Father Brendan is portrayed as a completely sexless being. Why?
I can think of a couple of reasons, neither entirely satisfactory. The simplest is: this is Mark’s story; we don’t want to distract by going into Father Brendan’s story. But Father Brendan is the observer. He is, in that sense, the audience-surrogate. If his reaction is limited to, “what a great guy” – then, on a certain level, that’s where our reaction ends as well. Keeping his feelings at a distance actually distances us from Mark – the opposite of what I presume was the intention.
A second possibility is that opening that question would require taking the religious dimension of the story more seriously. Mark is a believing Catholic. He’s not particularly hung up about sex – he’s admirably frank in his talks with Father Brendan, and he does go through with the whole thing – but he is highly conscious of being watched by God, and of God’s interest in his behavior. Mark’s success doesn’t conflict with that conviction – the preponderance of the evidence is that Mark’s quest is a positive one, not just for himself but for others. But that, in turn, has religious implications, and Father Brendan is the place for those implications to come home. I can see why the filmmakers might not have wanted the film to take that turn, but by avoiding it all they’ve done is reduce the significance of Mark’s own religious convictions – and hence to reduce him.
Finally: Mark’s body. As I mentioned, there are numerous scenes of nudity in the film, including several frank and frontal shots of Helen Hunt. But there is no similar shot of John Hawkes. In fact, there is a moment that screams for that shot – but the shot is butchered, I suspect deliberately.
The scene is late in the movie. Cheryl and Mark’s sessions are over, and Cheryl has come to the mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) to prepare for her conversion to Judaism (something she’s doing to please her husband’s mother – another way in which their bond is a barrier, as she has no authentic spiritual interest in the conversion, but is doing it anyway, letting her body “go through the motions”). She disrobes, and the mikvah lady comments on her evident comfort with nudity, contrasting it with what she usually sees from blushing brides-to-be. Then she says, “this is your body, the body God created for you.” And we flash back to the hotel room, and Cheryl is holding a mirror up to Mark, to show him his naked self. And she says the same line: this is your body. The body God created for you.
And we see only a partial reflection in the mirror, of his head and torso, nothing lower. Why?
As I say, the moment cries out for a frank image of the crippled man. It’s blinding obvious what’s required. I can only think of two reasons why the shot was butchered. The less-likely possibility is that Hawkes just didn’t look crippled. He just looked naked. I’m skeptical of this explanation – modern filmmakers have just too many tools at their disposal, and Hawkes is too good a physical actor, for me to buy that they couldn’t make the shot work.
More likely, the decision was ratings-driven: a series of full-frontal shots of Helen Hunt nude gets an “R” but a similarly frank shot of John Hawkes gets an “NC-17.” But if that’s the case, then my gosh, was there ever a better movie to go to the mat over? The double-standard is so glaring I can’t imagine it surviving any kind of publicity. And the shot of Hawkes was essential to the film. The line is there for the shot; without the shot, all the line does is call attention to someone’s failure of nerve.
Hunt and Hawkes are sure to be nominated for Oscars for their performances – and they will deserve to be. Quite apart from her physical courage, Hunt’s line-readings are sharp as a tack, and Hawkes manages to convey Mark’s combination of neediness, charm and sangfroid with nothing to work with but his voice, his eyes and his smile (and boy, does he work the variations on that smile). But the movie itself, while emphatically worth seeing, is considerably less than it could be. As written, Mark O’Brien is a sweet guy who deserved love, physical and emotional, and everybody who meets him sees this fairly quickly. And this is a story of him getting what he deserves. And that’s very sweet. But he’s surrounded by people with stories of their own, stories with intimations of considerable spiritual darkness. I wanted to explore that more, and how this man shaped their darkness and was shaped by it – as a man, and not just as a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit.