Wednesday, December 05, 2012

"The Sessions": Intimacy that is challenging to contemplate

It’s challenging to make a visually compelling film about a person immobilized with severe disabilities. That’s the case with the small but very popular film “The Sessions” by Ben Lewin, about poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), who has lived about half his adult hours in an iron lung because of childhood polio, and limited to a stretcher most of the time.

There were some earlier films like this, like “The Intouchables” (June 21) and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Jun. 11, 2008).  And I don’t think I’ve seen the 2005 BBC film “Hawking.”
Of course, most people know that the heart of the movie is his experience (apparently in the 1980s) with Cheryl, a middle-aged sex therapist (Helen Hunt), who lives a stable suburban Bay Area life as a soccer mom and wife of a philosophy professor. 

I grew up as a physically non-competitive boy in the 50s, became very modest about my body as a tween, and those attitudes – that the body symbolizes something, maybe as a part-object, persisted into adulthood.  So I would have found the idea of being undressed naked by an older woman (and maybe even a caregiver) unacceptable. (As a gay man, for this to happen in the hands of an attractive male, that is personally another matter, for another film -- like "Judas Kiss" or even "Bugcrush". But I would not want to play the role of "therapist" in that context, either.)   The “sessions” then lead to a certain focus on the importance of physical intercourse for its own sake, as something every man should achieve and experience, to “love”. I have never experienced that.
The intimate scenes are very stark, in the barrenness of appearance of both characters.  Possibly because of his physical illness, Hawke’s character looks minimal indeed, and absolutely hairless. 

The physical ascetic is balanced cleverly by the presence of a house cat (Ernie) who hangs around and looks lush and healthy, but who never interacts with the people in the film.  Such a cat might have become attached to Mark.

The priest (William H/ Macy) looks almost as barren, and seems to frame the story.

There is a disturbing sequence where Mark has to deal with a power outage, which might have been caused by the 1989 earthquake.

The official site for the film is here

I saw the film at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington VA before a very small Wednesday night audience, but the film has been around several weeks.  

Wikipedia attribution link for Berkeley Campanile tower.  I have visited in the area many times (most recently 2002).  I rented a room for a week in 1971.  

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