Sex scenes in movies—the non-pornographic ones, that is—tend to exist in a few rigidly defined categories: they can be erotic (the scene in Boogie Nights when Julianne Moore coaches Mark Wahlberg through his first shoot), comically grotesque (Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig’s excruciating beer-and-cunnilingus date in Greenberg) or deliberately repellant (the bone-chilling coupling of Selma Blair and Robert Wisdom in Storytelling). Sometimes these categories can overlap—Awkward and sexy! Disturbing and hot!—but rarely will a movie step outside their bounds entirely and try something new. Then there is that very rare sex scene—say, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in their Venice hotel room in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now—that does it all: turns us on, moves us emotionally, advances the story, reveals something about the characters, and showcases the filmmaker’s art.
The encounters between a severely disabled man and a hired sex surrogate in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions (Fox Searchlight) may not achieve Don’t Look Now’s level of cinematic artistry, but this frank, funny, tender film both asks and receives more from its sex scenes than any movie I’ve seen in a long time. Lord knows it gets a chance to thoroughly explore the topic: The Sessions is a movie structured entirely around sex, with naked therapy sessions between Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) and Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) making up the bulk of the movie’s slim 98-minute running time. When not having sex, Mark is usually either thinking about sex, writing poems about sex, or having no-holds-barred discussions about sex with his unflappable caregiver (Moon Bloodgood) and his free-thinking priest (a marvelous William H. Macy).
Mark O’Brien was a real person, a Bay Area man who died in 1999 at age 49. After having polio as a child, he spent most of the rest of his life in an iron-lung contraption, unable to move any part of his body but his head. A writer and poet (he typed on a computer keyboard using a mouthstick), O’Brien published a remarkable article in 1990 about setting out to lose his virginity to a professional surrogate at 38, after a lifetime of confusion and shame about his sexuality. It’s this piece that Lewin adapted into his screenplay for The Sessions, taking at least one significant dramatic liberty—in real life, O’Brien didn’t fall in love with the surrogate, nor she with him.
The Sessions is, at one level, a love story about the intimacy that grows between these two very particular people. But it’s also an ode to the act of intimacy itself, an unsentimental celebration of the power of sexual healing. Lewin treats sex neither as titillation nor taboo, but as a necessary anatomical function that’s also humanity’s greatest source of pleasure, connection, and mystery. The Sessions is only R-rated, but it’s not a movie you’d want to see with your parents (there should be a separate scale of MPAA ratings for that). The scenes of Hunt and Hawkes in bed together aren’t graphic, exactly, but they’re unadornedly real—there’s full- frontal female nudity (though no penises, for ratings reasons no doubt), close-ups of ears being kneaded and breasts being stroked, and lots of matter-of-fact, often funny banter between client and therapist about what feels good, what doesn’t, and what to do next.
Hawkes is phenomenal as the nervous, phobic, disarmingly honest Mark; there’s not a trace of self-pity or Oscar-baiting in his performance. (In fact, one of Mark’s more charming characteristics is his willingness to complain, his refusal to play the role of the silently suffering gimp. Explaining his Catholic faith to a new acquaintance, he dryly observes, “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to have anyone to blame for all this.”) Hunt, too, is extraordinary as the outwardly warm and nurturing but inwardly fragile sex therapist who must hide her growing connection to her client from her husband (an underused Adam Arkin). The Sessions will no doubt be marketed as an uplifting drama about triumphing over adversity. See it, instead, because it may be the year’s best movie about getting it on.
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