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Sex and sympathy

25 January 2013

By Stephen Brown


MARK O'BRIEN was a poet and journalist who died shortly before his 50th birthday in 1999. He is probably best known for his article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate", and a short Oscar-winning documentary based on his life. These form the source of a new film, The Sessions (Cert. 15).

What gives O'Brien (played by the Winter's Bone actor John Hawkes) an interesting twist is that this polio victim's yearning for sexual intimacy was seriously frustrated through his being paralysed from the neck downwards. There have been several earlier feature films concerning disablement which dealt with the subject (Going Home, Born on the Fourth of July, Inside I'm Dancing, etc.), but none quite like this, with the dilemma facing a devout man whose carnal desires appear to have no acceptable expression compatible with Christian ethics.

A sympathetic Father Brendan (the ubiquitous William H. Macey) encourages him to pursue his longings. "In my heart I feel [God will] give you a free pass on this one." So there we have a popular box-office combination: sex and religion. It is also a favoured cinematic trope to depict Roman Catholic clergy, like this one, as rule-breaking benefactors. Given how many real-life eccentrics there are, I wonder why in the cinema this quality is rarely accorded to the Anglican clergy. Peter Sellers, as the Revd John Smallwood in Heavens Above! (1963), is the only one I can think of who adopts loving but unconventional solutions to life's problems.

I am unaware whether what Mark is then offered by way of a remedy in this American film is also available over here on the NHS. Mark is allocated, for a limited number of sessions, Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) in the form of a sexual surrogate, in and out of bed with him. And, while the topic may sound an irresistible temptation for filmmakers to satisfy prurient viewers, The Sessions is, if anything, a little too coy, hastily foreclosing on scenes of a sexual nature.

These usually give way to sessions of a different kind; post-coital counselling with Father Brendan. In both cases, therapist and pastor provide credible pathways along which Mark can discover not simply the joy of sex, but the experience of loving and, ultimately, being loved with all his heart, soul, and strength.

There occurs the perhaps inevitable transference between therapist and client which needs to be worked through, and becomes the prelude to an enduring love that lasts way beyond the strictly controlled number of sessions with professionals.

The director, Ben Lewin, is not without knowledge of the subject, having been through polio himself. Possibly that is why he dares to bring some comic touches to what is, overall, a sad, but heart-warming story of love to the loveless shown.

On release.

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