An A+ for Orgasm

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in a scene from The Sessions

Today, after an extended hiatus of more than six months, I have brought myself to kick-start my film blog, all over again. And there couldn’t have been a better film than The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin, to bring about this Freudian rebirth. I had the utmost honour of watching it yesterday night after postponing it numerous times for no reason in particular. Now having seen the film, I consider it my duty as an avid film-goer, to write about it, in the hopes that some of you might be prompted into watching it, and hopefully be affected and moved by it in a good way. 

To tell you a little about the film, The Sessions is inspired by the real life story of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist who had spent the better part of his life on the whims of an iron lung machine. Mark, played by the remarkable John Hawkes, had suffered neck down paralysis after succumbing to polio during his childhood. Despite his near vegetative state - his body is capable of sensations, but his muscles just wouldn’t respond – Mark’s indomitable spirit earned him a university degree in Berkeley and he went on to become a campaigner for the rights of the disabled.

At the centre of this film is Mark’s innate and all too human need to find love. He’s never experienced physical intimacy in the four decades of his existence. As he touches 40, Mark feels an overpowering urge to lose his virginity. He confides to his priest, Father Brendan, “I think I am nearing my ‘USE-BY’ date.” The role of the padre is brought to life by William H Macy, an actor, whose range defies expectations time and time again.

The answer to Mark’s prayers comes in the form of Cheryl, a professional sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. If you haven’t guessed it by now, the title of the film refers to the therapy sessions that Mark undergoes with Cheryl to help him achieve this goal. I must confess, it’s been a while since I have had the opportunity to analyse a film based on a subject as sensitive as this. And it goes without saying that I need to be as careful (if not more), as the filmmakers in conveying my ideas without sounding crass or exploitative.

I will try my best to keep it short and pithy, so that you can spend lesser time reading this and more time catching up on the films mentioned here. From its opening scenes, it becomes clear that this is one of those films that look minuscule from the outside. But its ambitions are nothing short of revolutionary. For it’s not an easy task, to strip down a story about love, to its bare bones and approach it with an almost matter of fact informality.

John Hawkes paints such a believable and empathetic portrait of Mark that it’s hard to convince yourself at times that the actor is an able bodied, fully functioning adult male in the real world. The insecurities and the fears that plague his character are the ones that gnaw away at the psyches of ordinary men in any corner of the world. When he laments to his friend - Father Brendan, that ‘She loves me, but not just in that way’, it echoes the angst of the everyman, whose advances have been spurned by the object of his affection.

However, Mark is redeemed by the virtue of his self-deprecating humour and his indefatigable courage in the face of a disability that could have gotten the better of him. One of the biggest achievements of this film is that it completely does away with the guilt factor that accompanies such narratives. The differently-abled are depicted with a dignity that is so often denied to them. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the actors might have been milked for every ounce of melodrama from the proceedings.

Here, there's no patronizing and there's absolutely no pandering to the need for exhibiting the differently-abled as anything but human. My jaws were left wide open as I heard a certain supporting character in the film, a wheelchair bound young man mouth these lines (sic), “I have an intense affinity to smoking weed. This has almost desensitized my tongue to the point of numbness. However, this is a good thing when it comes to oral sex, because I can go on and on forever; because in the end – cunnilingus is all about stamina.”

This is just one example of the forthright and frank manner in which sexuality is addressed in The Sessions. There are enough and more scenes in the film that will remain embedded in your memory long after you have seen them. I won’t spoil them for you. What I will tell you is that this movie belongs to Helen Hunt. I haven't seen a more courageous performance by a female actor in recent memory. She imbues her Cheryl with a humanity and strength of resolve that questions the very foundations of our beliefs concerning sexual intimacy and that nebulous thing called love.

Cheryl’s no-nonsense approach to work becomes clear when she tells her client Mark that, “I’m not a prostitute. I do not come back for repeat business. There is a limit to the number of these sessions. In our case, it will be six.” By the way, Cheryl happens to be a middle-class American in her 40’s, married to a stay-at-home philosopher of a husband with a teenage son. The onus of being the sole breadwinner of the family does weigh heavily upon Cheryl. But not once do you see her lashing out in frustration, whether on the home front or the work front.

The tenderly poetic scenes that transpire between Mark and Cheryl are shot with a single-minded doggedness in pursuit of the truth of the human condition. It could barely border on titillation. When one of the characters in the film rebukes Cheryl by telling her that ‘you said you wouldn’t make it personal’, the viewer is reminded of the sad irony that crops up in all such matters concerning intimacy. The fact remains that the human sexual experience is an intensely personal, one-of-a-kind phenomenon that refuses to be bracketed or straitjacketed by manmade constructs of social and moral orderliness.

Try looking at it from a clinically objective vantage point and you’ll find its contents spilling over into a completely personal and subjective terrain. And that is something Cheryl realises when Mark asks her at the end of one of their sessions, if she was able to come. Mark’s innocent but purposeful query raises even more questions than I can possibly wind my head around. Is Cheryl’s orgasm independent of Mark’s experience of consummating his desire? If it were merely the question of losing his virginity, wouldn’t it just suffice for Mark to achieve an orgasm, irrespective of whether he has returned the favour to his surrogate? Can Cheryl experience ecstasy at the hands of Mark and deem it to be a completely impersonal and professional exercise, denying any sort of natural bonding that such unions inspire?

I think it would be appropriate to just leave you with those questions. I do not have the answers and I don’t intend to go searching for them as well. Partly because, I do not know if I am ready or if I have the moral strength or conviction to comprehend the answers that such pursuits entail. Please do not nurture a grouse on account of my having altogether ignored the role of the brilliant supporting actors in the film including William H Macy, Moon Bloodgood and many others. I strongly believe you’d enjoy their performances even more if I didn’t say a word. Or as Father Brendan would have said, “I understand, even among non-believers, the most common expression of sexual ecstasy is ‘Oh God!’”

Footnotes:  In case you are interested in knowing, given below are a few memorable films that feature protagonists pitted against seemingly insurmountable physical obstacles:

Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone
Last year’s highly acclaimed French drama from Jacques Audiard Rust and Bone featured Marion Cotillard playing a whale trainer in an amusement park, whose legs get amputated in the aftermath of a horrific accident. The film boasts of heartbreaking performances from both its lead actors. Marion especially deserves kudos for her role as she attempts to discover what it feels to be human all over again.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Julian Schnabel’s breathtakingly magnificent film is based on the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor in chief of Elle magazine, France, who suffered near complete paralysis after a stroke. The title role is played by the charismatic Mathieu Amalric in a career defining turn, as a man who can communicate using only his left eye. His flashbacks which involve memories of him making love to his wife are some of the most transcendent scenes ever captured on film.

The Sea Inside

Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside)
Alejandro Amenabar directs this poignant recreation of the last days of Spanish poet Ramon Sampedro. The incomparable Javier Bardem plays the enigmatic poet, who's been battling the government for the longest time to allow him a dignified death of his own accord. The film features one of the most exemplary uses of the legendary Puccini’s Nessun Dorma in what, I consider to be the greatest fantasy sequence in cinema.

Monkey Shines

Monkey Shines – An Experiment in Fear
George A Romero’s sci-fi horror flick features one of the very first and finest examples of portraying an intimate relationship between a disabled protagonist and his partner. Texturally the film comes across as a cheesy B-movie with average actors and production values. But the love scene in this film dares to push the envelope in a gratifying way.