Hollywood is certainly no stranger to either the subject of disability or sex as long, of course, as they remain disparate and segregated. And whilst actors displaying their front bottoms can be seen as either 'gratuitous' or 'brave' depending on the tone of the film, nothing screams 'Award-calibre Performance' like the depiction of some kind of physical or mental illness. It's difficult to know where cynicism ends and noble intent begins, but all too often, soft and yearning orchestral motifs and narratives from the 'Triumph Over Adversity 101' school of plotting take precedent over the addressing of such subject matter that can be at once sensitively and brutally portrayed. In many ways, sex and disability is a bit of a hard sell for an industry that's so strictly governed by a set of bizarre and nonsensical criteria that supposedly relates to matters of taste; sex is fine as long as it's between a consensual heterosexual couple, rape is more problematic, sexual violence more problematic still, female sexual empowerment and liberalism - forget it. Likewise, disability or terminal illness is always conveyed with 'spirit-of-humanity' earnestness, or worse, condescension; no one wants to see the piss and the shit and all the more visceral realities of disease, let alone god forbid, moments of intimacy. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cottilard's frank and erotic love scene in last year's Rust And Bone did much to dispel the myth that certain sexual activity has no credible place on the screen. Their scene was sensuous, understated, and light years from all the glossy vanillaed fucking that we see in neatly choreographed and carefully framed scenes from more mainstream movies. If then disability and sex is the last taboo, Ben Lewin's The Sessions splinters it into a million pieces with dignity, welcome wry humour, and a lyrical, emotional core that never declines into mawkishness or cloying sentimentality.
Man of the moment John Hawkes, so memorably and disturbingly hypnotic in films like Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone before it, here contorts and ensconces himself in the guise of Mark O'Brien, poet and polio victim, and on whose essay, published in 1990, this film is based. The setup is extraordinarily simple - bar a few flashbacks, the action oscillates between three primary locations; Mark's church, where he informs a compassionate but addled priest (H. Macy) of his intention to 'become a man' via a sex surrogate; Mark's simple ground floor apartment, containing as its centrepiece his iron lung (a terribly imposing construction of steel and glass, both casket and life-giver), and the homely residence of Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt), the professional stimulator Mark employs. In her modest study, she conscientiously dictates notes from the sessions she shares with him, noting progress, occasionally pausing at the magnitude of just what it is they're sharing. At times it's hard to tell who's more out of their depth. The sessions themselves are shot with meticulous inhibition, even if the participants themselves are scared half to death. Watching Cheryl coax Mark from timidity via a number of 'body awareness exercises' is a moving experience - part sex-seminar, part compelling insight into carnal awakening - but mostly it reminds us, able-bodied as we probably are, of the little things that comprise real human contact, the headiness of touch, sweetness of breath, and electricity of skin over skin. At first, Cheryl seems stoic, businesslike even. We begin to instinctively seek out the moment when she'll crack, and the two will succumb to one another. Ultimately, that Cheryl doesn't fall for her client, despite being deeply moved at his plight and relentless optimism, proves to be The Sessions' trump card, a winning diversion from convention, and one that recontextualises her earlier formality as creditable professionalism. To use an earlier ranking, Hunt would most definitely qualify for a 'brave' rating, not for what she bears externally, but for what she offers emotionally. She has a beauty, a resilience and intelligence that we fall for, utterly. For us men she's the holy grail of sexual partners; someone who banishes our neuroses and embraces us completely. One can only imagine the pain of not being able to touch her back. But this is Hawkes' film, though I suspect he'd never be so modest as to receive ownership of it. It's interesting to note how he quite literally does more with his face that most actors do with their whole bodies. Lewin cleverly refrains from aligning the camera with Mark's recumbent position on his gurney. It's a subtle but constant trick, silently commenting on how one views and is viewed, made even more noticeable during the only times we see his head face on - when he's in bed during the sessions, blissful and apprehensive, Hawkes' eyes darting from object to object.
There are no outro montages, no codas, no epilogues come the end of the film. Just an ending as sincere as its beginning, with Mark's narration telling us all we need to know. For a film that does its best to be unremarkable, The Sessions is very, very remarkable indeed.