the sessions the movie and more: part 2

by nikki meredith

The Intouchables

About 20 years ago, for a profile I planned, I interviewed Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sexual surrogate Helen Hunt plays in The Sessions.  (for part I of this post on The Sessions click here.) I found her irresistible. She had a way of talking about sex unlike anyone I’d ever met. She could be funny, very funny, though I can’t remember any specific examples, and while she could talk about sex explicitly, it seemed neither pornographic nor clinical. Her conversation about sex made sex seem like a part of life. A natural part of life. Imagine that. It seems remarkable that so few people can do that effectively. Even in the 21st century. Maybe especially in the 21st century. I squirm when I read Dan Savage, a syndicated columnist who writes an advice and sex column for both gays and straights. I love his writing, I love his politics but when he talks about sex, I want to dive under the table. When Cheryl talked about sex, I wanted to hear more.

As I recall, Cheryl didn’t specialize in treating disabled men though she had several clients who were. During our interview she talked about how sometimes it was difficult for these men when their sessions were over. The goal was to help them perform in other relationships, but, in reality, some of them would not be able to find partners so when she terminated treatment, it could mean the end of intimacy for them.

At the time I interviewed her, Cheryl lived in a side-by-side duplex. She and her family lived on one side, her studio was on the other.  There was no wheel chair accessible ramp so when Cheryl treated disabled clients who had no strong attendant to help, Cheryl’s then-husband Michael would carry them up the stairs to the therapy studio.

On my drive back to Marin that day, I kept visualizing Cheryl’s husband carrying the limp paralyzed bodies of these men up those stairs. For me, it had a spiritual quality. At the risk of offending religious folk, the image that came to mind was a male version of Pietà.   It wasn’t the first time I wished I had the talent of a visual artist. Nonetheless, I knew the description of that image would be my lede.

I never got to use that lede. My editor ultimately decided that the readers of a family magazine weren’t ready for a profile of a sexual surrogate. As I pointed out in the first part of this post, clearly, there are plenty of people who still aren’t ready for sexual surrogacy.

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Last night I saw a French film, The Intouchables. Like The Sessions, it’s a film   about a severely disabled man but it succeeded, for me, in ways The Sessions didn’t. It’s funnier, the characters are more complex and, most importantly, the central relationship of the film had the reciprocity that I found so lacking in The Sessions.  I acknowledge that it isn’t a totally fair comparison. For one thing, The Intouchables was filmed in Paris.  A coffee house on Telegraph Avenue will never compare to a midnight walk along the  Seine rippling in the moonlight. And because one of the two main protagonists is both rich and cultured, the audience is treated to a richer palette of sights and sounds — classical music, beautiful interior décor, bold, expressionist art. It’s a love story but a love story between two men – not sexual love, but joie de-vivre love.

The film, based on a true story, stars François Cluzet as Philippe, a rich widower paralyzed from the neck down who hires a young man named Driss (Omar Sy) from the projects to be his attendant. He does so despite the fact that Driss has neither experience as a caretaker nor interest in acquiring the skill to do the job.  Of course that changes in the course of the film and the bond the men form reinvigorates Philippe and broadens Driss’s perspective on life.

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, saw a different movie than I. In his review he proposed that the film’s title be changed to Déjà Vu because we’ve seen it all before. My response to that:  if we’ve seen it all before, it proves, once again, that in the right hands, cliché’s can feel fresh.

Very early in the film, I was so swept away by its energy and spirit, I had no interest in deconstructing it into discreet filmic elements or, for that matter, analyzing broad social implications. (One reviewer claimed that the portrayal of the African character was so stereotyped it bordered on racism. To that, I say, NONSENSE. I hope you’ll see the movie and judge for yourself.)

Because both films feature severely disabled men, a common theme is the issue of compassion. Early in The Sessions, the John Hawkes character has trouble finding a compassionate attendant; in The Intouchables, Phillipe’s makes it clear he wants Driss precisely because he doesn’t express compassion. He’s sick of compassion.

My former father-in-law, who was a quadriplegic, once described meeting a man who was so moved by the extremity of his condition, tears came to his eyes, he fell to his knees, and took my father-in-law’s hands. The man, was a newly arrived farm worker from Mexico, was poor, uneducated and spoke only Spanish. At first I thought the point of the story was to show how embarrassing my father-in-law found that kind of display. I was wrong. The point of the story was to show how universal compassion can be and, in my father in law’s case, how appreciated.

Are these contradictory? Of course not. And that’s precisely what the film shows.  Sometimes expressing immediate compassion, such as what was so moving to my father-in-law, is a manifestation of the best we can be; sometimes, as in The Intouchables, the compassion grows out of the relationship between two people and the compassion is reciprocal.  For many of us, when we observe disabled people, our compassion leads us to ask what we can do for them.  What this film demonstrates so compellingly (and The Sessions attempts not quite as successfully) is that almost all relationships are a two-way street.  We give. We get. We grow. Our lives are richer when we’re open to the mutuality of it.

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