Gimme Some Oven

{in theatres} The Sessions

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I want to talk about The Sessions by first talking about Skyfall again. Beth and I were rehashing the latest Bond, and she mentioned how she was annoyed by a certain shower scene. Yeah, I agreed. But I didn’t really want to get into it on the blog, I said. See, much of Bond seems to come straight from a 13-year-old boy’s imagination. Vaulting motorcycles! Caterpillar fights on top of moving trains! It’s adorable, really.

And when it comes to the obligatorily ridiculous “love” scenes, I tend to just roll my eyes like I would walking past an hormone-addled teenager drooling at Victoria’s Secret windows. It’s quickly dismissable adolescent fantasy. But this particular scene is disturbing if you shine the cold light of reality on it, so let’s take that bug-eyed kid for a Slushie in the food court and explain a few things to him.

Minor Skyfall SPOILERS (and adult conversation) ahead.

Ok, kid. Number 1: Real sex slaves report the trade ain’t so glamorous. And they’re not likely to run into a Tom-Ford-tailored super agent ready to rescue them in the course of daily work. Number 2: Rescuing a sex slave does not give you automatic co-showering privileges, as assumed by Bond, Jackass Bond. Presuming as much is treating her exactly like the object you’re purporting to rescue her from being. Number 3, if you’re going to make me say it: Women are more valuable than a good scotch. Did a glass of Glenlivet 15 French Oak Reserve bring you into this world through nine months of discomfort and hours of wrenching labor? Is a Highland Park 18-Year explaining key life lessons to you, without which you would be doomed to a long life of said jack-assery? Is a Macallan 18 sitting behind you in English class, inspiring you to douse yourself in Axe Body Spray and memorize Shakespeare you won’t ever understand? Didn’t think so, bro.

Or maybe we should just take the poor kid to see The Sessions, still enjoying a nation-wide theatre run. If his parents say it’s OK, of course.

The Sessions is written and directed by Ben Lewin and based on an article by Mark O’Brien (published in The Sun in 1990). The article honestly and bluntly recounts Mark’s experiences with a sex surrogate, Cheryl. You see, Mark is a polio survivor who spends most of his time trapped in an iron lung. Until Cheryl, a trained therapist who uses her body to treat patients (i.e., not a prostitute), Mark was a virgin with a conflicted attitude toward sex, in general, and his own unexplored sexuality, in particular.

The film adds a few Hollywood touches, but mostly stays the original article’s course and restates its theme. In the article’s coda, O’Brien writes, “Sex for the sake of sex alone has little appeal to me because it seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.” The film gently reminds us of that meaning from the perspective of a man whose circumstances seemed to disqualify him from experiencing sex at all.

The film’s characters treat sex as both a “serious matter,” as Mark says to his priest (a delightful William H. Macy), and as hilarious. That particular combination of ir/reverance could also be called…holy. And that seems to be the point this film is making: Our bodies and how we combine them? That’s sacred stuff.

The actors reinforce this belief with their vulnerable performances. John Hawkes incarnates Mark’s twisted body with compassion and a wry sense of humor. Helen Hunt embodies Cheryl with frankness and empathy. And the camera views their bodies, Mark’s frail rib cage and Cheryl’s natural curves, with equal respect. It’s sad that seeing human bodies shown humanely is so refreshing. It means that I’ve gotten way too used to cameras that gaze at chests and breasts and legs and lips like parts ripe for consumption, not beings meant for connection.

The film’s tension comes from Mark’s fear that he isn’t worthy of being physically loved and Cheryl’s confused response to the closeness their shared vulnerability creates. The film takes sex and its effects as seriously as Mark and Cheryl do.

There’s a beautiful sequence toward the end of the movie that has little to do with the film’s plot but everything to do with its message. Cheryl is in the process of converting to Judaism, and visits a mikveh, a ritual bath. The woman guiding her says that most people are unable to be naked, to exist in just their skin with nothing to cling to and nowhere to hide. This is the body God granted to you, she says, and the refrain repeats—this is your body…this is your body—as Cheryl immerses herself in the purifying water.

Everything about the film—its gentle humor, its respectful camera-gaze, its compassionate acting, its honest script—seems to be inviting us to see our bodies with the same grace. This is your body. And it is good. Holy, even. It wouldn’t hurt for more movies to see our bodies that way, too. Even Bond ones. 

gimme five

Good for: Starting great conversations and re-sensitizing us to how bodies are shown on screen.

Invite your: Close friends so you can discuss in full with no awkwardness after

Snack on: Coffee, in honor of one of the film’s most charming scenes, when Mark tries to take Cheryl on a date

Bring your: Open heart and open eyes

Skip if: You don’t do movie nudity, even the respectful kind

Got any suggestions of movies that show bodies in a respectful/humane/real/necessary way?

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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12 comments on “{in theatres} The Sessions”

  1. Oh man. Brave film. Proud of them for taking on the topic, and encouraged that it sounds respectfully made. Can’t believe some of the things you mentioned about Bond…argh.

    • That’s just normal Bond, though…which is why I didn’t talk about it in the first review…and then after considering The Sessions again and talking to Beth I thought I might have to talk about it!

  2. wow. definitely sounds interesting to see all that incapsulated in one film. and yes, the bond bit was frustrating, but like you said, it seems more from lack of education & thinking than purposefully demeaning. hopefully the writer/director of the next 007 film have taken the sessions lessons to heart.

  3. It was a 50 year old Macallen…so I think that changes the discussion a bit.

    (jk. lolz.)

  4. Love these reviews! I wasn’t interested in The Sessions, but you just changed my mind. I, for one, really like how you just tied these two very different films together in one write-up.

    • Thanks, Amy! Let me know what you think about you see it. Really interested how other people experience The Sessions. I will try to keep tying completely opposite films together with increasingly tenuous threads ; )

  5. Just saw this movie and loved it! A fantastic synopsis and review of the film. Hoping for some Oscar nominations for this one, especially for John Hawkes.