Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is not a great film, and its status as a good one may in part be due to its circumscription by yet another dreadful “holiday season” of superhero films, juvenile fantasy, and feel-good family comedies. But the film is commendable for its remarkable humanity (in an age that seems to despise the human) and its association of sex with the essential joy of living. The film manages to navigate difficult territory adroitly, avoiding becoming cloying, quite an accomplishment for a film dealing with a quadriplegic who wants to rid himself of his virginity. Such a film could easily become “sensitive” in the worst possible way – the film could develop a condescending point of view, or even sidestep the issue of sex completely. The film almost slips into these problems.
Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a real-life poet confined to a hospital gurney when not spending most of the day in an iron lung, hires a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), to initiate him to intercourse as a preparation for a sex life. The scenes between the two people are remarkably tender and spontaneous. Cheryl, totally naked, performs intercourse with the paralyzed man, eventually achieving orgasm as she discovers her affection for him. Some leering reviewers have made much about Hunt’s body, David Denby in The New Yorker actually writing that she is “looking great, for the record, at age forty-nine” (the female once again needing to pass muster). It is hard to imagine an adult writing such a phrase, but perhaps not so strange considering that the source is one of several heirs to the execrable Pauline Kael, known for her general crudity and zero feminist consciousness (which is perhaps a reason why she is now held in such high esteem). Hunt’s physical and intellectual grace are always manifest in her work – she is stunning at every level, and it is unfortunate that she hasn’t enjoyed the kind of career that she truly deserves. In an age when women over 40 are “geezer babes,” according to the industry, it is a wonder that she was allowed to disrobe, or that the film was made at all.
Sex and Cinema
Orson Welles argued that the portrayal of the sex act would distract the audience and ruin the fabric of drama. Film history has proven him wrong, I think, although we still have insufficient data, due to the restrictions of a religion-bound culture, something that The Sessions touches upon, if a bit too blithely. That our culture still has a long way to go in the representation of sexuality on film is obvious by the restrictions placed on the sex act. Hunt and Hawkes simulate sex; we don’t see their genitalia nor intercourse itself, which might have been accomplished via CGI if the actors objected to performing the act – it has been accomplished in Shortbus, another film that conjoins sex to most other human activities and joys. Cinema offers titillating moments of “full frontal nudity,” but for the most part the sex act is confined to pornography – there are exceptions of course, such as Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, but I can think of very few others, certainly films where the sex act is accompanied by tenderness and humor. The profoundly human elements of sexuality are deemed taboo and not permitted the adult gaze – unless the studio wants an NC-17 rating that immediately brands it as vulgar trash. The Sessions is remarkable for its sense of sex as basic to our humanity, to all emotions. In one scene, Cheryl sits astride Mark’s head, teaching him cunnilingus. He starts gurgling and choking, making Cheryl jump off of him. The moment is both humorous and poignant—we are reminded of Mark’s physical restrictions, but the two people are far from deterred.
John Hawkes, known for characters who project negativity even as they draw sympathy (Winter’s Bone is exemplary, and one of the few films to deal with the very poor as capitalism continues its downward spiral) is on the verge of proving himself to be a great actor, with this film preparing his path. Mark is consistently good-humored and full of wit (a good rendering, so I’m told, of the real Mark O’Brien – I don’t know his life or work). A lesser actor could have made all this overbearing, an instance of the impaired person who overcompensates with sparkling personality. Hawkes includes a note of pathos when he asks Cheryl to take him on a date so “the gimp can be seen with the beautiful woman.” Aside from an early moment when Mark leaves Cheryl’s fee on a dresser as if she were a prostitute (Cheryl promptly but gently corrects him, thinking – accurately – that for all of Mark’s good will he is still a product of patriarchal civilization), the two people become partners and friends.
For her part, the only word I can think of to describe Hunt is radiant at every level – it makes sense that she transcends, in the course of the narrative, the kitschy picture of the Virgin Mary that Mark stares at most of the day. There is a moment when Hunt gets on top of Mark’s deformed body to insert his penis in her; she registers the stress of the moment while also conveying its joy, the sense of her complete participation, and her authentic human charity. Later, in her car after leaving Mark, she breaks down, realizing that this man has given her something she has never discovered in her marriage to her oafish husband, who drapes an arm over her in the marital bed when she clearly wants to read.
Mark is a devout Catholic who wants permission to have “premarital” sex from the good-natured hippy priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Brendan stares up at a near-nude effigy of Jesus (the contradictions of church iconography are always a wonder to me) and tells Mark that he thinks Jesus will “give [him] a pass.” There is a thorny issue here. One might come away with a sense of the church’s benevolence on matters of sex. Of course it may well be true that Mark had the good luck to know someone like Brendan, but hippy priests, when they were around, were at the very margins of the church. The notion of the church as a community of genuine human beings – rather than an arm of Vatican doctrine – is endearing but perhaps misleading.
There is a parallel but far more problematical situation with Cheryl and her husband, who wants her to convert to Judaism – she acquiesces, even when we see obvious signs of the tenuousness of her marriage. She goes to a Mikveh ceremony where she is asked to undress and bathe – an older woman complements her on her unabashed nature, remarking that most people are ashamed of their bodies, as if Cheryl needs to hear this, as if the woman is educating her. When Cheryl dives underwater, I could not help but think that she is being drowned. Could this ancient form of patriarchal doctrine, one that still marginalizes women, have anything to offer this woman? (The Mikveh ceremony is about “purifying” the female body, meaning most crucially the female genitals.) Given the trajectory of the narrative, one would hope that Cheryl would leave her husband, to start a completely new life if not move in with Mark (the sense of his doom is always palpable – he died in 1999). The film shows Mark’s funeral. There is no irony that most of the people affected by his life are women. We have seen a man constantly in the supine, “female” position, burdened by his physicality (just as patriarchal society wants women to feel burdened) who, not surprisingly, is able to share his happiness, his total ecstasy in this new-found pleasure (at first he climaxes with a simple touch of his body). His sensitivity is precisely what all of us search for, and only the attention to one’s femininity will help us find it.
Earlier in the film, one of his young female attendants waits while Cheryl and Mark have sex in a motel, their usual venue occupied. Eventually she develops a small relationship with the sheepish desk clerk, who decides to proposition her, the young woman declining with good humor. There is the sense that whatever Mark and Cheryl touch comes alive, if only momentarily.
The Sessions has a basic, universal point. Women do teach men about sex, that is if men want to be taught, which isn’t very often, it seems to me, since men want to be in command, placing their own pleasure at the absolute forefront. The cultural denial of this basic point might make the film seem “weird” to some, an oddball film about a sad wretch and the sad, has-been New Age woman who wants to screw him. The film’s failure is its retreat into the world of the normal at the conclusion, with the sense that “life goes on” after Mark’s death. This is a modest film, but its accomplishment is its description of a utopia that might yet be achieved.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes regularly for Film International.