The other day, I was rewatching Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1994 film Trois couleurs: rouges, and found myself marveling that anyone could ever have come up with it. Stripped to its skeleton, it could be the result of a fiendish artistic challenge: create a coherent narrative, supporting the broad theme of “fraternity,” out of such randomly selected elements as a fashion model who runs over a dog and a retired judge who monitors his neighbours’ phone calls. Kieslowski pulls that off more than well enough, but I was especially transfixed this time by the final stretch, which goes beyond skill, if that’s the word, to a kind of all-encompassing artistic necessity. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about a film hinting that we’ve been watching a dream, or some form of meta-reality, but it’s usually just a gimmick; Rouge suggests instead – quite thrillingly - a more fully sensitized, justified existence. I wouldn’t place it among my very favourite films – the pictures in that category never even make me think that way about the underlying calculation; I’m too fully lost within them – but for a few hours, I just kept thinking: wow, that’s exactly the kind of thing I wish I had the artistic muscles to pull off.
Ben Lewin’s new film The Sessions is an entirely different kind of undertaking. Set in 1988 in Berkeley, it’s the real-life story of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist who contracted polio at the age of six and spent most of his subsequent life in an iron lung. In his thirties, still a virgin, he became increasingly preoccupied with his sexuality, and ultimately decided to engage a sex surrogate: the film’s most direct source is an article he wrote about his experiences. Lewin, also a polio survivor, apparently came across the article while actively thinking about a project on sex and the disabled, and Wikipedia quotes him as follows: “I felt that if I could do on film what he had done to me with his writing, then I could potentially deliver something powerful.”
Of course, it requires a million artistic decisions to travel from there to a finished film, and as many elements of chance. One of Lewin’s key choices, it seems to me, was to decide on an exceptionally matter of fact approach to the material, evidenced in particular by how he handles the sex scenes. Helen Hunt, in her most notable role for years, plays Cheryl, the surrogate, with unstinting in-for-a-penny in-for-a-pound openness: there’s little sense of the actress being protected by friendly lighting or camera angles or the like. This leads to one rather jarring moment, when Cheryl holds a mirror up before Mark so he can see his whole body. In a different movie it would be unremarkable that the framing preserves Mark and the actor’s modesty, but here it seems like a basic, uncourageous gender disparity.
Self-hatred and fear
On the other hand, no matter what the actor John Hawkes did to prepare to play Mark, he couldn’t have been expected to starve himself down to sixty pounds, which is how O’Brien describes his weight in the original article: some softening of the experience was inevitable. Hawkes is remarkable nevertheless – I can’t think offhand of another movie where you spend so much time looking at someone horizontally – but The Sessions is mostly about O’Brien’s sweetly screwed-up, wistful side, and doesn’t particularly try to immerse us in the sheer monotony of his life experience, or in the intensity of his “self-hatred and fear,” as he wrote about it. O’Brien described his frustrated sexual feelings as “another curse inflicted upon me by a cruel God,” but the movie casts God mostly as a deadpan straight man, standing in the background of numerous conversations between Mark and his pragmatic priest, played by William H Macy. Actually, just by virtue of his searching, ravaged quality, Macy single-handedly does much of the heavy lifting on evoking the darkness, conveying an inner fear that even though God might give Mark a free pass, nothing good awaits the priest who tipped him off to it.
As another example, O’Brien wrote his essay a couple of years after the fact, acknowledging that the experience with Cheryl hadn’t changed his life, and that he continued to be as isolated as ever. In the movie though, although it’s a bit fuzzy about timelines, it conveys a sense of rapid pay-off, that Mark’s new confidence about not being a virgin allows him to make a previously impossible connection (the film’s last scene evokes, of all things, Truffaut’s The Man who Loved Women, or maybe more accurately the Blake Edwards remake of it). Don’t get me wrong – it would take a colder-hearted viewer than I am to begrudge the character any of this. But it still marks the film, at its heart, as a conventional American chronicle of growth, renewal and benevolent community (maybe the latter element comes across particularly strongly because Berkeley is just that kind of easy-going place, I’m not sure).
Triumph of the human spirit
Anyway, The Sessions is completely engaging viewing. I somewhat preferred it to the recent film it most directly evokes, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a depiction of Jean-Dominique Baudry, a former Elle editor with “locked-in syndrome.” Schnabel made extensive use of an inner camera to evoke Baudry’s inner state, essentially crafting the film as a tragically extreme extension of his previous films, about artists on the fringe. At the time I wrote here that the film “conveys an enormous sense of contentment and inner ventilation, as if Baudry’s unleashed spirit had seeped into every aspect of its making,” but reading that sentence now, I’m not sure why I thought that was a good thing. I guess in the interim I’ve become even less susceptible to the triumph of the human spirit thing, or maybe my memories are being adversely coloured by Schnabel’s subsequent picture Miral, which did nothing to advance his standing either as a filmmaker or a thinker. Be that as it may, O’Brien’s essay seems to indicate a pretty methodical and rigorous thinker, and a fortitude that’s hard for the rest of us to imagine, and the film does justice to that.
For the vast majority of us, any treatment of Mark O’Brien’s story would inevitably be far removed from our own lives – trying to close that gap might untap some generalized “universality,” but potentially at the cost of obscuring the truth of his experience. But then, you might argue there’s no reason we should worry about that anyway – this is art, not a legal deposition. We’ll be swirling such questions around for as long as filmed entertainment survives I suppose, and they’re not unimportant, but I’m not sure they ultimately take us much of anywhere either. Put it this way – watching a movie such as The Sessions is like getting it from a great surrogate, but watching Rouge is doing the real thing.