Niall Anderson’s tears aren’t the only things being jerked by The Sessions
In what might have been a particularly discouraging life, Mark O’Brien accomplished a great deal. Born in Boston in 1950, he contracted poliomyelitis when he was six and ended up more or less immobile from the neck down. On good days he could move his right foot, and in later years he used this foot to power a motorised trolley to carry him around Berkeley, California, where he worked and studied. He graduated from the University of California (after a prolonged struggle to even be allowed to enrol) and later sued the state to be considered legally independent rather than a ward of his parents. Thereafter, he lived on his own – with help from carers – and supported himself through journalism.
He has also been the subject of a previous film, Breathing Lessons, which won an Oscar for Best Short Documentary in 1997. The opening sequence of Breathing Lessons gives you some idea of what O’Brien was up against: in particular, it gives you the brutal noise and pounding indifference of the iron lung where he was forced to spend most of his time. He could survive for an hour or two outside it, but his lungs were so weak it actively hurt him to breathe.
The opening sequence of The Sessions – a fictionalised account of a period from O’Brien’s life in the 1980s – is practically identical to that of Breathing Lessons. O’Brien, ventriloquized with spooky accuracy by John Hawkes, recites the same poem, and both sequences end with a steady pan along the iron lung until we see O’Brien’s face. But the lung, in The Sessions, is silent. Hawkes speaks the words fluently, with no trace of the forced respiration you hear from O’Brien himself. A good deal of the difficulty of O’Brien’s life is wiped away at a stroke. Indeed, wherever The Sessions finds an unexpected wrinkle in O’Brien’s biography, it quickly and efficiently smooths it over. The frictionless result is not just different from Mark O’Brien’s actual life, but from any life ever lived.
The Sessions has been assembled from bits and pieces of O’Brien’s life-writing, with the bulk of it coming from his essay ‘On Seeing A Sex Surrogate’: a funny, scared and above all plain-spoken account of his decision, aged thirty-eight, to pay someone to take his virginity in a therapeutic setting. This sex surrogate, Cheryl, was by O’Brien’s original account a happily married mother of two. She brought no personal baggage into the transaction, and the sessions stopped at O’Brien’s request when – after a few understandable false starts – he’d achieved his aim.
Writer-director Ben Lewin obviously felt that this basic story wasn’t dramatic enough, so he builds The Sessions around a few elements of false jeopardy. What if there was an arbitrary limit to the number of sessions Cheryl allows Mark? What if Cheryl’s marriage wasn’t as happy as she claimed? What if – after a few rounds of intense mutual touching – Cheryl found herself being touched in the place she least expected: HER HEART? And what if Cheryl was played by Helen Hunt with a superfluous Boston accent that threatened to make her sound like Hitler if Hitler was a duck? Consider the stakes raised!
And yet also, curiously, lowered. Since it first screened at Sundance last year, The Sessions has garnered a lot of praise for its honesty in depicting the reality of sex for the severely disabled – by having a not-really disabled actor not-really have sex with an actress. I’m not quite sure how that works logically, but let it just be said that the sex scenes are unadorned and borderline believable. Elsewhere, as should be clear by now, The Sessions has a severe case of the cutes – indeed, a nearly contemptuous idea of what sort of romcom tropes a mainstream audience will need if it’s going to put up with seeing a guy pretending to have polio pretend to have sex.
The result is a bit like a community theatre version of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin: a conspicuously multiracial cast gather round A White Guy With Problems to wisecrack him into realising he’s normal. You would have thought an iron lung was a fairly insurmountable obstacle to having a normal sex life, but the longer the film goes on, the less time O’Brien spends in it. Such is The Sessions’ commitment to airbrushing out brute reality, I was slightly surprised that O’Brien doesn’t end the film by scoring a volleyed winner in the last minute of the cup final.
Instead, The Sessions does something worse. It marries him off. Such is the boost Cheryl has given O’Brien’s self-esteem that he woos and wins a wife (Robin Weigert). At the end of the film, wife and surrogate stare mistily at each other with mutual admiration: between them, they have bestowed normality on a biological misfit. This is basically saying that the disabled can become “normal” if normal people help them: exactly the sort of pious liberal paternalism O’Brien spent his adult life fighting against. Indeed, O’Brien saw himself as having insights and experience that the able-bodied would be well advised to heed, because ‘everyone becomes disabled, unless they die first.’ When he took on the State of California to be considered legally independent, he was engaged in conscious civil activism, not just a personal crusade.
More centrally, and most damningly for The Sessions, there is O’Brien’s conclusion to his essay about seeing Cheryl:
[M]y life hasn’t changed. I continue to be isolated, partly because of my polio, which forces me to spend five or six days a week in an iron lung, and partly because of my personality. I am low-key, withdrawn, and cerebral.
My personality, it may be said, is a result of my disability, because of which I have spent most of my life apart from people my own age. Whatever the cause, my isolation continues … I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled.
There may be a whiff of self-pity here, but there is also a clear recognition that biology is destiny – at least in part – and that severe disability makes that destiny all the more difficult to escape. The Sessions is formally dedicated to O’Brien’s memory, but it doesn’t remotely honour it.