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Indie Snapshot: The Sessions

by Ethan Alter October 19, 2012 5:59 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>The Sessions</i>

Helen Hunt auditions to replace Penelope Cruz in the English-language remake of Woman on Top. Also, quick takes on the French movies Holy Motors and All Together.

The Sessions
One of the big hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up the Audience Award and ignited Oscar buzz for its stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, The Sessions arrives in theaters poised to make a splash in the year-end awards race, at least in the acting categories. Certainly, it's subject matter is catnip for voters: based on a true story, the film casts Hawkes as Mark O'Brien, a San Francisco-based poet and journalist whose childhood brush with polio left him paralyzed and in an iron lung. (The real O'Brien, who wrote the article on which the film is based, passed away in 1999 at the age of 49.) Spending his days flat on his back, O'Brien has nevertheless managed to make a successful, fulfilling life and career for himself, but there's still something missing from his existence: the intimacy -- both emotional and physical -- that comes with being in a committed, loving relationship. In the midst of researching a news story about the sex lives of other disabled men and women, Mark decides that, at 38, it's time he finally popped his cherry, so to speak. With the blessing of his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) and the aid of his nurses Rod (W. Earl Brown) and Vera (Moon Bloodgood), he signs up for a six-session crash course in lovemaking with sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt). With her gently, patiently guiding him, Mark learns how to adapt his body to both the idea and mechanics of sex, which in turn provides him with a profound insight into its connection with love.

So much could have gone wrong with bringing this story to the screen, the fact that writer/director Ben Lewin manages to make a film that's both respectful of its subject and also legitimately entertaining is an achievement in and of itself. And, truth be told, he does miss the mark at times, straining too hard for crowd-pleasing comic moments (most of which involve Macy's priest and Bloodgood's nurse, who are forced to play some of the broader, more sitcom-y beats) and attempting to manufacture drama where little exists (like Cheryl's relationship with her husband, played by Adam Arkin, who is presented as being aware of and comfortable with her profession, at least until it follows her home -- more than anything these scenes feel like an unnecessary effort to beef up Hunt's screen time).

But the core of the move -- specifically the sessions between Mark and Cheryl -- is quite good, thanks to Lewin's frank, yet also funny and sensitive depiction of two strangers exploring each other's bodies and the well-judged performances of Hawkes and Hunt. (If you've ever been up late watching old episodes of Mad About You or Deadwood and caught yourself wondering what these two look like naked... here's your answer.) Without a trace of hamminess or Oscar-clip ready histrionics, the actors locate the emotional reality in this not-exactly-everyday scenario and create a healthy, believable relationship that defies easy categorization; they're more than a teacher and a student, but less than full-blown lovers. (That the movie studiously avoids steering them in the direction of the typical happy ending is another of its strengths.) Overall, the film's treatment of sex is refreshingly open-minded, depicting it as a natural human need that should be respected and encouraged -- rather than feared and denied -- between consenting adults. Whether or not The Sessions nets either of its stars an Oscar, they're sure to win the admiration of audiences and their fellow actors.

Holy Motors
For his first feature in over a decade, French filmmaker Leos Carax concocts a delightfully odd road trip through the streets of Paris with a real-life shapeshifter (his frequent star, Denis Lavant) as our guide. Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, who spends his days riding around town in a roomy, well-appointed stretch limo being taken from job to job. And what is his line of work, you might ask? Well, he's whatever his clients need him to be, whether that's a dying old man having an emotional conversation with a loved one, a motion-capture performer adept at acting out the most elaborate, CGI-enhanced scenes or a green-suited wild man called "Merde" who kidnaps models (Eva Mendes, in a mute cameo) in the midst of a big photo shot. Holy Motors doesn't have a plot so to speak, but it does unfold in a logical progression of episodes, with Oscar's day eventually building to a chance encounter with a colleague and old lover (Kylie Minogue... yes, the Kylie Minogue) who has tired of their profession. Although this climactic scene doesn't fully pack the emotional punch Carax attempts to bring to it, like the rest of the movie, it's a beautifully crafted scene that takes a number of unexpected twists and turns. Beyond the sheer brio of the filmmaking, Holy Motors is also a terrific showcase for Lavant, who adopts and sheds his various identities with such ease, he's like a magician who has unlocked the secret of body-switching. A cult favorite in the making, Holy Motors shows that movie magic isn't limited to the Harry Potter and Hobbit franchises.

All Together
If your tastes in French cinema run towards the less fantastical, this down-to-earth ensemble drama may satisfy you more than the larger-than-life whimsy of Holy Motors. Boasting a cast that includes Jane Fonda, Geraldine Chaplin, Pierre Richard and Claude Rich, All Together follows a group of elderly friends -- two married couples and one swinging single type -- who decide to avoid the fate of ending up in a retirement home by creating their own elderly commune of sorts. They'll all live together in the same house and take care of each other, in sickness and in health. But problems arise when it turns out that, over the years, some of these lifelong pals have secretly arranged "friends with benefits" situations without their partners' knowledge. Written and directed by St├ęphane Robelin, All Together is entirely pleasant without being especially memorable. The actors are good, the script is solid and the ending is sweet, without being sentimental. But it's missing that certain je ne sais quoi that would make the whole amount to more than the sum of its parts.

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