By Matt Singer | Criticwire October 24, 2012 at 11:38AM
The new film "The Sessions" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival as "The Surrogate," a reference to the fact that the main character, poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), hires a "sex surrogate" (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity at the age of 38, a plan complicated by the fact that as a result of a childhood bout of polio, Mark is essentially paralyzed from the neck down and spends 20 hours a day inside an iron lung. But a strange truth of the movie's sexual content suggests another layer of relevance to the discarded original title: while Hunt spends a hefty portion of the film totally nude, Hawkes never does. In this story of sexual discovery, Hunt's character not only plays surrogate to Hawkes', Hunt's nudity has to play surrogate to Hawkes' as well.
This subject was covered -- and discussed by "The Sessions"' filmmakers -- earlier this week in an article by John Horn for The Los Angeles Times. In it, writer/director Ben Lewin explains his decision to show Hunt's naked body repeatedly and from just about every angle, while Hawkes remains chastely covered:
"'My task was not to challenge the MPAA,' Lewin said, adding that any male frontal nudity, especially showing O’Brien in an aroused state, would guarantee a NC-17 rating... 'I was pretty aware of [the MPAA’s] attitude toward erect penises -- that we’d immediately be dumped into quasi-porno land,' Lewin said. 'And there was no point in showing John's penis if it wasn’t erect.'"
If there's a double standard to blame here, Lewin suggests, it's not his double standard -- it's the double standard of the Motion Picture Association of America and their ratings board. If Hawkes had been visibly nude in the scenes between Mark and Hunt's Cheryl then the movie would have been slapped with an NC-17 -- meaning fewer theaters would show it, fewer outlets would publish advertising for it, and "The Sessions" would have a longer and tougher road back to profitability. Lewin's quotes imply that in a perfect world Hawkes would be just as naked as Hunt. In our world, the nature of the NC-17 demanded an approach that is arguably unfair -- and inarguably smarter business practice.
It's tough to dispute Lewin's assessment of the MPAA's attitude toward male nudity. And he's almost certainly correct that an erect male penis is an automatic NC-17 -- do not pass go, do not collect $200 million. But is he right that there was no point to showing Hawkes's body if it wasn't in a state of arousal? After watching the movie last night, I'm not so sure.
By the time "The Sessions" meets Mark O'Brien, he's in his late 30s. A devout Catholic, Mark knows that God considers sex out of wedlock a sin. But approaching his "sell-by date," as he jokes at one point, and having been rejected by a woman he's asked to marry him, he begins to worry that if he doesn't have sex soon, he never will. While researching an article on the sex lives of the disabled, Mark learns about the world of sex surrogates, essentially hands-on therapists who are paid to perform sexual acts with their patients as part of their therapy. Searching for spiritual counsel, he undertakes a series of confessions with his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who listens to Mark and decides that, at least in this case, God will allow an exception. So Mark hires Cheryl, who agrees to meet him for a series of six sessions -- and no more, for reasons that are not explained, although the legal boundary between surrogacy and prostitution could have something to do with it.
Mark and Cheryl's sessions are explicit and graphic -- but only to an extent. I'll skip the Mr. Skin-esque rundown of each act, but let it be noted that by the end of the film, to paraphrase an episode of "Seinfeld," if I had to describe Helen Hunt's body to a police sketch artist, the police would pick her up in about ten minutes. Hawkes, on the other hand, remains relatively obscured, perpetually hidden below the edge of the frame or swaddled in blankets.
There are all sorts of practical reasons for that, most having to do with Mark's polio -- and Hawkes' able-bodied frame. The actor does his best to contort his body into a shape that suggests a crippling illness, but the more of it we see, the more we realize that he is an actor playing a part and not a man with an actual disability. Showing less of Hawkes' body not only keeps the MPAA off the movie's back, it keeps the audience from thinking too much about his appearance. It might also be worth mentioning that Mark's polio means there's no logistical way to include any sort of male nudity that the MPAA allows in an R-rated film (frankly, ass shots) because his condition makes it impossible -- he spends the entire movie lying on his back.
As a result, male nudity in "The Sessions" became an all-or-nothing proposition. Lewin went with nothing. And while that decision is certainly understandable from a practical position, it's not always defensible from a thematic one. Mark's journey, his conversations with Father Brendan, and his encounters with Cheryl are about openness, self-acceptance, and self-worth. The movie suggests we're all beautiful, but the camera's awkward handling of the male body suggests otherwise.
For instance, in one particularly poignant moment during a therapy session, Cheryl holds up a mirror so that Mark can look at his own naked body -- something, he's earlier confessed to Father Brendan, he hasn't seen in decades. Through ever-so-careful framing, Lewin positions Hunt and her mirror so that Hawkes' can see his body, but the audience cannot. Contrary to Lewin's comments, this moment has nothing to do with erections or orgasms. It's about Mark accepting and being comfortable with himself and his sexuality. And yet by deliberately framing Hawkes' nudity out of the shot, the movie suggests it itself isn't comfortable with him. In the context of that scene -- one in which Hunt's character is standing across the room, fully clothed -- not showing Hawkes' nudity sticks out like a sore thumb. Technically, it sticks out like something else that we're not allowed to talk about or see, but whatever.
To be clear: "The Sessions" is a charming movie. It's sweet and funny and hopeful -- it just doesn't make you equally hopeful about the depictions of human sexuality in future American movies. In a film about learning to be fearless, the choice to expose Hunt and hide Hawkes feels like a timid decision.
Read more of "Why John Hawkes Doesn't Do the Full Monty in 'The Sessions.'"