“Do they still have iron lungs?” someone asked me the other day after seeing the moving film, “The Sessions.”
I was surprised by the question. Years ago, Dr. Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, was to be my father-in-law. I was engaged to Claude Picasso, who is the son of Francoise Gilot. After Francoise walked out on Picasso, she married Jonas. We were all told to refer to Dr. Salk as Jonas.
Before Pablo died, Claude, in order to support himself, took up photojournalism and wrote articles about his father-in-law. One of the familiar topics of these of these articles was the conflict between Dr. Albert Sabin and Jonas. Sabin claimed he invented the vaccine, which became the cure for polio, but we all knew Jonas had.
Jonas was a kind, sensitive man. Seeing “The Sessions” made me once again grateful to Jonas for his vaccine and for curing this crippling disease.
“The Sessions” is a home run for the healing powers of sex. How repressed a society we are — despite all of our iPad and techno-net ways of relating. We have lost touch with the power of touch.
Mark O’Brien, (John Hawkes) is a victim of polio and condemned to a life in an iron lung. He is to remain a virgin with passion burning within until Helen Hunt comes into his life.
In the opening scene, one of his nurses makes a reaction to what is obviously an erection while he is paralyzed. His body is alive and eager to relate to women in a sexual way, but he is imprisoned in his own body. A poet and writer who writes with his mouth while holding an apparatus that is able to translate his words — much like Steven Hawking does — O’Brien makes a living writing articles.
O’Brien befriends a priest (William Macy), who offers him confession. Regularly they meet, and O’Brien eventurally confesses his sexual desires, asking if he has the blessing of the church to consult a sex therapist. (The priest smokes and drinks beer and is the director’s commentary on religious piety.)
Enter the stunning and brave Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Hunt’s performance is moving, though her unnecessary Boston accent seems to go in and out of her. (The director, Ben Lewin, should have caught this, but as he was also the screenwriter, his dance card was crowded).
Cheryl has a tolerant husband Rod (W. Earl Brown), who she refers to as a philosopher Later Cheryl, confesses that Rod plays guitar and thinks a lot. Good-natured Cheryl takes care of men in need of nurturing.
Amanda (Annika Marks) is a nurse’s aide who becomes infatuated with O’Brien and quits due to her strong feelings for him. She’s replaced by the gorgeous Vera (Moon Bloodgood), who is able to perform her duties without emotional involvement. (Don’t any of these people have last names?!)
Hawkes is so convincing as a polio victim that I thought he was indeed O’Brien until I watched the credits. The audience applauded, and so will anyone who is vulnerable to the sad state of sexuality in America and how much our puritan ethic is to blame.
Like O’Brien, I left the theater feeling cleansed as well.