Madeleine Davies

The Sessions: Film review

In Films on January 24, 2013 at 4:32 pm

As an elevator pitch, The Sessions requires some work. Want to see a film about a guilt-prone 38 year-old Catholic confined to an iron lung who pays a sexual surrogate to take his virginity? We nearly lost the only male member of our group at the door.

Ninety-eight minutes later, he admitted he’d been “unexpectedly moved.”

Ben Lewin’s film is beautiful, funny and, best of all, truthful. It has something to say about sex; not particularly sex for those with a disability but sex as “a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses, and rock stars” as Mark O’Brien writes in the autobiographical essay on which the film is based (On Seeing a Sex Surrogate). It’s a film about a man who is “screwed up”, both physically, his muscles wasted by polio, but, more significantly, emotionally, who is gradually able to grow into his sexuality, to leave behind shame and self-loathing.

It should be an awkward watch. The iron lung in which Mark spends almost every hour of the day is an arresting site, like an antique submarine from which Mark’s head emerges, detached, like a magician’s assistant. O’Brien worried that a lover would be “horrified at seeing my pale, thin body with its bent spine, bent neck, washboard ribcage, and hipbones protruding like outriggers.” When Cheryl, the surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, first meets him, shock registers for a brief moment on her face — this is an honest film. But in the scenes that follow, all the shame and fear that Mark, and maybe we, associate with nakedness melts away.

Perhaps this is because the sex here is, ostensibly, therapeutic. In an interview with the real life Cheryl Cohen, Chrissey Iley of The Sunday Times wrote: “She is so comfortable in her own skin that she makes you feel utterly at ease”. Helen Hunt captures this brilliantly. In a scene towards the end of the film, she steps into a Mikveh, a bath used for ritual immersion by Jewish women (she is in the process of converting). “This is your body. This is the body God crafted for you” the attendant tells her, recalling the young brides who come with their mothers and try to hide from their own nakedness.

Cheryl has no such qualms. In her first meeting with Mark, she happily strips off in full view before climbing into bed with him. Later, she holds up a mirror so that he can see himself naked (he hasn’t done this for 30 years). In “body awareness exercises” her fingers travel all the way from the top of his head down. Her encounters with Mark are so tender and reassuring, that his verdict that he feels “cleansed, victorious” rings entirely true.

Lewin’s clever script suggests that Mark’s fears and anxieties about sex aren’t particularly unique. The young female attendant who wheels him to his appointments remembers being afraid that losing her virginity would be painful and hints that premature ejaculation isn’t a problem confined to 38 year-old virgins. The male attendant suggests that sex isn’t the be all and end all but that “you never feel you’re done until you’ve done it”. Mark may be limited physically, but, being trapped in his mind for hours at a time has enabled him to see the poetry in sex, to elevate it to something magical. And if ever there was evidence that it’s possible to laugh a woman into bed, it’s here. Some of the humour is black, but some of it is just good old-fashioned flirting.

Some of the best scenes are between Mark, a devout Catholic (“I have to believe in a God with a sense of humour”), and Father Brendan, the priest who hears his confessions but ends up giving advice as “a friend”.

O’Brien’s essay opens with the revelation that he felt his sexual frustration to be “just another curse inflicted upon me by a cruel God”. Later, he confesses that, before having sex, he “half-expected God — or my parents — to keep this moment from happening.”

When Father Brendan, played by William H Macy, hove into view, I anticipated discomfort, moralising, a lecture on purity. But the God that this priest knows, who is, in a sense, represented by him in the film, has a different, more nuanced attitude towards sex. The priest, who will later bring post-coital beers and cigarettes to Mark’s flat, tells him that he thinks God would give him a “free pass” on sex with a surrogate.  When Mark confides that he feels afraid, he holds his hands and prays, asking “sweet Jesus” to “bless this little journey.” If only all priests were this humane, this unafraid to both acknowledge complexity and, on occasion, reject it (he questions out loud why so many people seek to “bring God” into sex).

Although there is tragedy in The Sessions, it is the depth of compassion shown to Mark that is really moving, not just by Cheryl but by almost everyone he encounters. At a cafe, the young waiter doesn’t bat an eye when Mark, horizontal on his gurney, asks him to place a straw in his mouth. As an afterthought, he warns him that the coffee might take a while to cool down. This is a film that’s very hopeful about humanity – about our capacity not to gawp or blanche but make each other feel at ease in our own, imperfect, skins.

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