The Sessions is a magnificent film, although my attempt to describe it to others has met with underwhelming response. My son, Jeremy, went as far as to comment, “where do you find these weird films, dad?”
It tells the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 39-year-old polio victim who spends most of his life in an iron lung – a machine that looks something like a diving compression chamber, without which he can breathe for only a few hours at a time. Because of the severity of his disability, with its impact upon the function and shape of his body (as he says, “someone who was not an attendant, nurse, or doctor would be horrified at seeing my pale, thin body with its bent spine, bent neck, washboard ribcage, and hipbones protruding like outriggers” – see note 1), Mark has not experienced sexual intimacy. And so he hires a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who helps him work through his fear and experience the joys and frustrations of sex.
So, a disabled man has sex. How do you make a quality movie on the basis of such a premise? For a start, you give a naked Helen Hunt plenty of screen time! This 49-year-old star has a beautiful figure – but the film manages to reveal the natural beauty of her body and her character without the sensationalism or gratuity of so much of the Hollywood portrayal of sex. Perhaps this is because her nudity is set alongside that of Mark, although this implies a “beauty and the beast” motif which the film also manages to avoid. In fact, it somehow evinces the beauty and strangeness of all bodies, along with the exquisite joy and disappointments of sex. In doing so, the film explores a vital element of what it is to be human; the challenge of living within the limits of our broken and finite bodies, and the longing for a connection with others that is both psychological and physical.
Elly and I watched The Sessions together. Its themes were probably too close to home, yet in some weird way, I suspect every person will be able to recognise something of their own problems and insecurities in this story – while also being reminded of the blessings and opportunities of their own life.
The Sessions – a triumphant tearjerker, 4.5/5 stars.
PS: the film also explores O’Brien’s Catholic faith, and his friendship with his parish priest. The potency of this relationship perhaps arises from their shared virginity, and also from their honest wrestling with the grace and vicious humour of God in the face of the problem of pain.
Note 1: the film is based on an article written by Mark O’Brien, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”, the Sun, May 1990. It is available at the following link, http://longform.org/author/mark-obrien/ – in my view, best read after seeing the film