The newest disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture is The Sessions, and it’s quirky and grounded enough to sneak past your more cynical defenses—the kind that would lead you, say, to label it a disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait picture. Two things make you sit up, the first being that its 38-year-old Berkeley protagonist, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), cannot: Paralyzed below the neck from childhood polio and almost never raised to a sitting position, he is largely seen at a 90-degree angle—which creates, interestingly, a kind of poetic distance. The pathos isn’t in-your-face. The second novel element is, in fact, the focus. Where other disability films ignore or dance around the question of how their subjects, as the Brits so delicately say, “manage it,” The Sessions dances right in. It’s a sexual coming-of-age movie. The original title was The Surrogate for its chief female character, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), hired by Mark to teach him how to give and receive pleasure, which means they get nekkid together. Relax, it’s legal—even wholesome.
One reason the “ick factor” is almost nonexistent is that Mark is both endearing and witty. A devout—rather traumatized—Catholic, he explains his belief in God like so: “I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be able to blame someone for this.” Hawkes bears little resemblance to his meth-fueled uncle in Winter’s Bone or Manson-like cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. His features are relaxed and his voice is minus chest tones. It all seems to come from his nose—he sounds like Liberace. A virgin with some notoriety as a poet and essayist, Mark, who has a habit of pining in vain for his dishier female attendants, asks for his priest’s blessing to do it with it a surrogate, explaining that he’s coming close to his “use-by date.” The long-haired Father Brendan is played by William H. Macy, whom I didn’t buy for a second. But there wasn’t a second I didn’t love him and his hangdog deadpan as he tries to remain impassive while Mark gives him more detail than he wants to hear. Gazing at Jesus above the altar, the priest says, “I feel like he’ll give you a free pass on this one.” Amen.
Writer-director Ben Lewin, a 66-year-old best known for TV dramas and comedies in Australia, the U.K., and Hollywood (I won’t hold Touched by an Angel against him), takes a simple, almost matter-of-fact approach that’s buoyed by Marco Beltrami’s sprightly score. It fits the performances of Hawkes and Hunt, who sheds her clothes so easily that you forget to be embarrassed. She manages to make her patter (“We’ll start with some body-awareness exercises”) sound neither robotic nor coy but perfectly appropriate: Her body says “NC-17” but her words are “PG-13.” (The MPAA split the difference and gave the picture an R.) It’s nice to see Hunt again. She was overused for a couple of years, played some bum roles, and dropped out for a spell. Seeing her here reminds you how plain-in-a-good-way she can be, the emotions rising up as if by their own power and breaking through her studiously levelheaded surface. Mark, of course, falls (so to speak) for Cheryl, and Cheryl, in a way, for Mark. What they do about it as their sessions (they’re limited to six) draw to a close is sudden and moving. I watched Hunt trying to hold back the tears and cried before she did.
The briskness of The Sessions works against it: It lacks the fullness of the best films of its ilk, chief among them Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot. But Lewin lets his eye wander pleasingly. As one of Mark’s attendants, Moon Bloodgood has a lovely poker face that once or twice gives her hand away, and her scenes with Ming Lo as a well-dressed motel desk clerk (she sits with him while Mark and Cheryl have their sessions behind closed doors) are sweet little studies in flirtation and repression. Mark O’Brien was a real guy, and I think he’d be pleased that his story has been told as a good comedy with tears instead of a by-the-numbers weeper with laughs.
To my shame, I misread the early work of onetime wunderkind and festival darling Léos Carax as that of a poseur whose disregard for storytelling suggested the most suffocating sort of cinephilia—cine-solipsism. He might well be a solipsist, but he’s not a poseur. This is how Carax expresses himself, and he does so without a wasted, impersonal, non-passionate shot. His latest film, Holy Motors, is typically confounding but on every level that matters a work of unfettered—and liberating—imagination. It’s also a showcase for the stupendous Denis Lavant, who plays Monsieur Oscar, a man of one thousand faces who’s driven in a long white limo (by the trim Edith Scob) from one job to the next (along the way removing and applying makeup and appurtenances), assuming various roles in assorted people’s lives. (His face, rather puttyish in repose, seems less so under putty.) It’s sometimes unclear who has hired him or what his ultimate function is—or, in a couple of cases, whether he has succeeded or failed in his appointed task. Set in a vague, rather depersonalized future, Holy Motors emerges as a cry for intimacy—as seen through the eyes of an artist who can only fleetingly fill the void.
Among Lavant and Monsieur Oscar’s impersonations: a sort of deformed, feral dwarf who carries off a supermodel (Eva Mendes) and dresses her in a burka; a ninja warrior on a Star Trek–holodeck–like set, his acrobatic fight with a tall female athlete (Zlata) subsequently transformed via CGI into the (much less interesting) attack of a phallic dragon; a father picking up his awkward teenage daughter (Nastya Golubeva Carax) and cruelly berating her for telling an innocent lie; a superrich banker; a babbling crone; an old man on his deathbed in a scene lifted (with acknowledgment) from The Portrait of a Lady. He’s an assassin who brutally kills a look-alike: his twin? His parallel-universe self? He’s the long-ago love of a woman—Kylie Minogue!—who wanders around an abandoned department store (broken mannequins abound) and warbles a plaintive song about a lost child. One gives up connecting the dots—or ought to, since that way lies not madness but an overabundance of sanity (the hobgoblin of literal minds).
At a New York Film Festival press conference, an anti-expansive Carax (he radiated discomfort) said that he was forced owing to lack of money to shoot on digital video—but that he hasn’t much cared about celluloid cinematography since the death in 2003 of Jean-Yves Escoffier, with whom he had his most intimate artistic relationship. I sympathize with his loss, but in the long run it might be freeing for Carax to think less about lighting and color and more about how his characters inhabit the space and connect—or don’t—with each other. Have I mentioned how amusing the movie is? There’s a wry streak in the older Carax, terminally morbid but more than half in love with the crumbling and transitory. In Holy Motors, he’s death-wishing on a star.