Attendant Driss: Where can you find a tetraplegic?
Quadriplegic Philippe: Where can you... I don't know.
Driss: Exactly where you left him.
from "The Intouchables"
Over the approximate century since the birth of film, many have gone beyond the cotton-candy eye-fill of perfection usually represented as 'regular people' by Hollywood and its imitators.
Such films as My Left Foot (1978), and the equally powerful Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) developed winning tales of often-true challenged protagonists overcoming handicaps so great one would often assume the sufferer had no chance of normal life. In the case of the buoyant Intouchables protagonist, the focus is on a feisty, affable multi-billionaire and his lively, if not criminal, ebullient African helper, to the delight of the viewer. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"-also of French vintage-follows a character caught in near-total paralysis, whose only 'working part' is his left eye. He manages, with the help of a compassionate and intuitive attendant, to translate his life-story into a lyric memoir.
Other American films in this growing genre include The Bone Collector(1999); Born on the Fourth of July (1989); Coming Home (1978); The Men (1950) --and there are a slew of films on other disabilities including schizophrenia, autism, lost limbs, mobility issues, blindness, head injuries and the like. They share one common element: Their protagonists are physically disabled to an almost unbearable extent. They can move their heads, or their neck and heads. Or an eyelid.
Such films achieve several things for the average moviegoer. By focusing on the differently abled, such films are powerful reminders how fortunate and blessed we are, and I marvel at the heights of achievement these exemplary persons win through the most extraordinary effort. And two, such films make clear that living in regret is not the answer, and that an optimistic and ahead-view of life can indeed wring miracles where some see mere catastrophic impingement on freedom.
Such chronicles are often uncomfortable to watch, more because of the notion of global inhibition of mobility and activity than at the discomfort or acting or unrolling of the resolution. And in the back of the mind, always pressing: "There but for the grace of..." Making us all too aware of our privilege when it is compared with the alternative. How would I cope? What kind of life would I have?
The Sessions is such a film. Another true story translated into a difficult but worthwhile exploration of the actualization of life without 100% functionality. Here, though, added to the protagonist's confinement to an iron lung almost 22 hours a day, there is the additional... discomfort of seeing a sex surrogate in action, as the hero here, an adult of 38, has never had the freedom or physical mobility to have sex. The problem for this reviewer is that the chosen surrogate here is a former sweetheart of Mad About You, a comedy about an adorable couple doing "Seinfeld"-lite in NYC.
Helen Hunt portrays sex therapist and surrogate partner Cheryl Cohen Greene. Outstanding in As Good As It Gets, the 1997 film dealing with an obsessive-compulsive (Jack Nicholson), she battles here to work her careful and therapeutic wiles on the iron-lung man who hires her for his first foray in eroticism, or anyway, sex. The script requires her to provide the protagonist, played by an amazing John Hawkes, with his first sexual experiences. He is a poet and journalist, even on his gurney hither and thither on journalistic interview rounds for articles -- often on sexual topics. But he has no personal knowledge of the topics he covers.
Hunt is required to strip in almost every scene, to get in bed with Hawkes, on top of him, etcetera, whatever the 'lesson' of the day requires. An intelligent, witty, humorous adult nearing 40, he has never seen his own body, much less a naked female's.
How the story works itself around his keepers and attendants, the gentle, informed wit of most people within his orbit, as limned against the home-life of the Helen Hunt character, provides a nice parallel. Hunt's husband is played by outwardly easygoing but unsettled cuddly grizzly-bear, Adam Arkin. Oddly, Arkin is the character many of us will likely identify with, since his wife returns home nightly after having 'therapeutic sex' with guys he doesn't know anything about. "It's not personal!" his wife reminds him. High-concept sex therapy. Really?
Intriguing parallels unfold nuancedly in the film, which resonates interestingly in retrospection (Don't most films disappear, like a gelato?):
• One caretaker, astringently if pragmatically played by a lovely Chinese 20-something, is put into weekly juxtaposition with a Chinese motelier (is that a word? It is now). Her choice: Date a Chinese to please her parents, or continue dating a Caucasian, just to stick it to them?
• A priest, played respectfully and with commendable restraint by the versatile Bill Macy, has to take confession that involves blow-by-blow descriptions of the parishioner's latest sexual graduations and accomplishments. He must counsel his religious friend to accept - or reject - sex "outside the sacrament of marriage." Here is a man not permitted sex in his profession, of course, with surrogates or otherwise -- which occupational dilemma is neatly counterpoised.
• Emotional depths are plumbed, too, in re survivor's guilt in relation to siblings, as Hawkes' sister had died in childhood, possibly as a result of parental overattention to their son. Parents try in the face of contrary fate to be fair to all their progeny, both challenged and not-challenged. Do they always succeed?
• The iron-lung protagonist uses maximal effort to type his sensations and recollections, while the fully functional sex surrogate, mindful of her professional aspects, records her impressions nightly on tape.
• Can a person fall legitimately in love with those who tend to every bodily need? Can attendants fall legitimately in love, not in pity, with their employer charges?
So I was not comfortable with how often Hunt had to strip down for the "job." It might be clinical, or it might be pragmatic and simpatico-empathic. Quien sabe? Hunt brings insight and depth to her role, and makes us indeed see that there are differences between the surrogate and the prostitute.
The film has points to recommend it, even for the more-than-slightly squeamish or religiously offended. Even for me.