The film is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist rendered immobile by childhood polio. The only parts of his body he can move are his head and, well, that part.
Having been commissioned in 1994 to write an article about disabled sex, Mark decides to do research by experiencing the activity under scrutiny, something he hasn’t done in his first 38 years. To that end he engages the services of a sex surrogate cum sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene (whose article provides a source for the script).
But first Mark, a pious Catholic, seeks the blessing of his priest, who has initial qualms about endorsing fornication. However, after some soul searching and a few glances at the icons of Jesus and the Virgin, the priest exclaims ‘Go for it!’, which Mark does.
Enter Cheryl, who is at pains to explain the difference between herself and a prostitute: ‘They want your repeat business, and I don’t.’ What she wants is exactly sex sessions, during which she gradually, competently and in due course lovingly coaxes first Mark and then herself to orgasm.
Mark’s spirits are lifted no end, and he makes a successful pass at the hospital volunteer Susan Fernbach, whose account also contributed to the script. He dies in 1999, much later and happier than, the film implies, he would have done without his foray into carnal love.
Judging by the bits of his verse cited in the film, O’Brien isn’t much of a poet. He is, however, something more important: an honourable man who bears his desperate condition with humour, dignity and fortitude. Never once in 95 minutes does he wallow in self-pity, demanding lachrymose sympathy from those around him. Instead Mark shows his generosity of spirit by joking about his condition which, he knows, makes life hard not only for him but also for his minders.
Cheryl and the others treat him without the cloying sentimentality into which the film could so easily have lapsed. They all trade variously funny and light-hearted lines with Mark, obviously trying to mask the underlying tragedy, but never quite succeeding in doing so.
Even though the sex scenes are rather graphic, with female nudity throughout, the film isn’t at all salacious – yet another pitfall it avoids. Cheryl at first imbues the proceedings with a certain clinical efficiency to be expected from the medical professional she thinks she is. From there she proceeds to emotional involvement, skipping eroticism unencumbered by sentiment.
Director Ben Lewin employs extremely restrained angles, laconic camera movements and miserly cutting volume. His taste is impeccable, and he senses that a film like this lives or dies by the acting performances.
In this instance it lives, and gloriously so. John Hawkes’s Mark is superb: one believes every word and every facial expression, the only means he has at his disposal. It takes a true artist to do so much with so little, and without a single false note.
Helen Hunt’s Cheryl is equally impressive. The Oscar-winning actress has never done frontal nudity before, and, for a 49-year-old it takes courage to do so for the first time. Hunt’s subtlety makes us believe Cheryl’s transition, unlikely for someone in her line of work, from detached professional expertise to genuine feeling. She manages to make even the red-blooded males in the audience forget they’re looking at a beautiful naked woman. Her humanity takes over, drawing attention to her face, eyes, smile and away from her body.
William H. Macy’s performance as the priest is as compelling as one would expect from the Coen brothers’ favourite actor. And every supporting role is impeccably cast and acted, delivering just the right mixture of gravity and levity.
The film refrains from moralising, which is always commendable. But in displaying such restraint it regrettably leaves some essential moral questions not only unanswered but indeed unasked.
These involve neither Mark nor his priest. Only a heartless puritan would begrudge a little happiness to a man who spends his life inside an iron lung and who’s clearly not long for this world. And I submit that a priest anathematising fornication under such circumstances would uphold the letter of Christianity at the expense of its spirit.
The problem starts with Cheryl and her trade. For all her meticulous compiling of medical notes, she is indeed closer to a hooker than to a doctor or a therapist.
Sex with patients isn’t what medical people do. If amorous problems arise from plumbing malfunctions, patients go to urologists. If the problem is psychological, they go to a psychiatrist. If it’s caused by an underlying disease, they go to a physician. If cured, they may seek professional sex, but it’s a fallacy to regard it as just another branch of medicine.
Like hookers, surrogates reduce sex to an impersonal interface between parts, not humans – which the film proves by finally making Cheryl act, on her terms, unprofessionally. The sex between Cheryl and Mark only succeeds when they become attached to each other, emphasising the advantage of being human, rather than, say, simian.
By treating Mrs Cohen’s profession as a legitimate medical service, the film displays worrying amorality – it imbues the action with an emotional content, while ignoring the moral one.
Cheryl acts, speaks and dresses like a normal middleclass housewife, which of course she is. After work she goes home to her husband, who lives off the proceeds of her occupation. He only becomes uncomfortable when he realises that Cheryl has feelings for Mark – her screwing strangers full time doesn’t bother him at all.
We don’t find out how Cheryl got to do what she’s doing, nor why her husband seems so nonchalant about it, and these omissions leave a gap. After all, neither I nor anyone I know would welcome our wives pursuing such career ambitions. That doesn’t mean that everyone should be as boringly normal but, if some men aren’t, an explanation wouldn’t go amiss in a complete work of art.
I’m not suggesting that the moral questions to be raised could receive a quick and unequivocal answer – only that not having asked them betrays somewhat the otherwise unimpeachable integrity of the film.
Interestingly, the Observer reviewer has a different problem: he mildly castigates the film for being ‘perhaps somewhat judgmental about prostitutes when Mark comes to making rigid distinctions between [them and] Cheryl.’
Of course being judgmental about anything offends against The Observer’s moral code, which has become predominant in our time. In fact, it’s the only sin that can’t be swept under the carpet of their editorial office. I’d suggest that a lack of moral judgment pushes us down to a level where human beings used not to be routinely found, but where Observer columnists seem to dwell en masse.