Dec 8, 2012

The Sessions

Based on the real story of poet Mark O'Brien, The Sessions is about the romance between O'Brien (John Hawkes), who lived encased in an iron lung, and Cheryl, his sex surrogate therapist, (Helen Hunt).
It is an intriguing story. O'Brien was 39 years old and had never experienced sex with someone, so he wanted to give it a try. He ends up under the care of very professional, empathetic Cheryl, who struggles to keep the relationship at a distance, but caves under Mark's sweet charms.
The Sessions is gently funny and touching, but there is something too beatific and unconvincing about it; it's not messy enough. The humor befits a sitcom, but the situation deserves more depth; and the treatment of sex, while surprisingly frank for an American film, is like reading an operations manual.
Hunt and Hawkes bring enormous dignity and humanity to their roles and they elevate the movie far above its feel-good script. I wish the movie was not so eager to please the audience. Its sexual frankness is startling for an American film, but it belies a curious lack of eroticism. There is nothing sexy about it. This is not to say that one expects a horny movie with a disabled man at its center. But if Mark's most fervent wish is to experience sex, at the very least there should be some sexiness in his desire, even if he is in an iron lung. If anything, The Sessions is duly tasteful, mostly cheerful, and rather literal. Like its name, it is oddly clinical, and uses humor to deflect from the real nakedness of its themes. The only one who brings an edge to the table is Helen Hunt, very affecting as a woman whose carefully constructed fortress of professional demeanor (in the most intimate of professions) totally dissembles as she allows herself to fall for her client.
I suspect the movie is uncomfortable with its own sexuality. Whereas Cheryl is shown in all her full frontal glory (Hunt looks beautiful), a scene in which Cheryl shows Mark his body through a mirror, is decorously framed above the groin. Well, this defeats the purpose. If the point is to celebrate the miracle of the body, of Mark's body, why not show it as well? To avoid an NC-17 rating? We are still cloistered in puritanical territory, no matter how many times the words penis, vagina, nipples and total penetration are mentioned. One of the wasted themes in this film is the miracle of sexual pleasure, considering, as the movie shows at length, that if you break it down, a lot of stuff has to happen in order for sex to succeed. And while The Sessions is more confident and convincing in the way it depicts love, it is clumsy around sex. Everything is too explicit, in a Masters and Johnson kind of way. What it has in empathy, it lacks in imagination, which is an essential component of eroticism. I can't help but think of Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, which is also about an unlikely love affair between a disabled woman and an emotionally crippled man. The sexual tension is there, the desire is there, and that edgy, risky feeling of opposites attracting is powerfully visceral. None of this happens in The Sessions. For all the explicitness and the female nudity, it is still couched in an insipid aura of cuteness, which the two stars, and particularly Hunt, work with all their might to dispel.

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