There are many--perhaps too many--movies about sex, far fewer films about love, and fewer still that consider intimacy.
A couple of notable exceptions come to mind: 1978's Coming Home and the French import Amour (a beautiful film slated to come to Boise in early 2013). But I'm thrilled to report that The Sessions is a fine cinematic portrait of intimacy--that wonderfully mysterious space between awkwardness and ecstasy. The Sessions is touching, quite funny, lovely to look at and intellectually mature--a rare artistic achievement.
Having seen the film twice already, I found both experiences to be vastly different. At first blush--and there's a bit to blush at here as the film showcases a fair amount of nudity--I couldn't help but imagine what studio executives were thinking when trying to finance a film about the sexual achievement of a man confined by an iron lung.
Upon my second viewing, I thought the lead character's physical limitations were more of an afterthought and instead recognized that The Sessions' true triumph is its revelation of the journey each of us takes far beyond our own handicaps to find comfort in both body and soul.
Based on a 1990 article in The Sun Magazine, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," The Sessions is the story of Mark O'Brien, who, in spite of being crippled by polio as a child, is gifted with caustic wit and endless desire. But O'Brien is also a devout Catholic, his guilt shackling him as much as the cavernous iron lung that keeps him alive.
O'Brien, recognizing that he is not long for this world, wanted to pursue something almost unthinkable: sex as a quadriplegic--not exactly the stuff of high comic relief. Yet the script by Ben Lewin, who also expertly directed The Sessions, features generous moments of humor, particularly in the scenes between John Hawkes, who plays O'Brien, and the always great William H. Macy as O'Brien's priest.
Hawkes, the craggy-faced Oscar nominee from Winter's Bone, is an unlikely leading man. But his delicate portrayal of O'Brien is genuine enchantment.
My biggest bouquet is reserved for Helen Hunt, who plays Cheryl Cohen Green, a married mother who takes her work extremely seriously in helping clients discover their sensuality through sex. Though the 49-year-old Oscar winner spends a fair amount of the film nude (and looks fantastic), it's her inner beauty that vaults her to the front of the line as the year's best supporting actress.
Our finest cinematic love stories remind us that intimacy is not best displayed against sweeping panoramas or lush soundtracks. Instead, these rare stories offer glimpses of tenderness that have more in common with poetry than film.