“The Sessions”, “NoBody’s Perfect”, and “The Intouchables”: Twisted Bodies, Open Minds

Recently, we have seen a series of engaging movies portraying handicapped people without pity.   These three deal with body image in the nearly unexplored territory of the disabled: “The Sessions”, “NoBody’s Perfect” and “The Intouchables”.  All three are surprisingly gentle yet fearless journeys into the human needs of sexuality and respect.

“The Sessions”, nominated for multiple Academy Awards, reveals the often unacknowledged and ignored subject of human sexuality for the disabled.  Based upon a true story, the severely handicapped Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes in another astonishing performance), is mostly confined to an iron lung (1980’s timeframe).  O’Brien has endured life as a brilliant writer trapped in a body ravaged by polio. Helen Hunt pulls no punches as the caregiving sexual therapist/surrogate who develops a relationship with O’Brien that is genuine, honest, and tender. Through normal sexual experience, he begins to understand his body and his emotions, often through humor and grace. Even the Catholic priest (the rocking William H. Macy), O’Brien’s confidante and confessor, provides comic relief in this gem of a movie.

“NoBody’s Perfect”, an HBO documentary, has not received the same publicity and distribution as the other two films I review here, but it is a tour-de-force about the Thalidomide survivors of the 1960’s.  Infants were born with deformed limbs or no limbs at all, due to heinous side effects produced by Thalidomide, a tranquillizer some pregnant women had taken for morning sickness.  The drug company did not test the drug on pregnant women and did not accept responsibility for the damages to these families until this documentary was being made 50 years later.   The film astonishes by the bold photography of these middle-aged men and women who model their naked bodies with pride and lack of self-consciousness.  In a series of interviews about what they think of their bodies and the beauty they find in themselves, anyone who has had dysmorphic thoughts (i.e. negative views of their own bodies) will be in utter disbelief of the emboldened and heroic confidence of these men and women!  They often feel whole and unbroken.  A deeply personal film by a German Thalidomide survivor, I guarantee you will be absorbed by these extraordinary individuals.

“The Intouchables” is a charming, eccentric French film focusing on an adventurous, unpretentious aristocrat  (Philippe) who happens to be a quadriplegic needing 24/7 care.

A fun-loving young rogue nicknamed Driss, who has a history of misdemeanors, becomes an unlikely caregiver for Philippe, after an unhappy succession of doltish ones.  The second most successful French film of all time, this is a tear-eliciting, laugh-out-loud cinematic triumph. Based on a true story, this film–like the other two mentioned above–is more about how relationships can be powerful and life-affirming–than about dealing with disability. “The Intouchables” is so much fun to watch because of the joyous and free-spirited friendship between two goofy men from the far ends of the economic spectrum.  Joyous and outlandish!  Watch for the two real characters who appear in film clips at the end of the credits.

Who would have thought that three such different films could be sources for discovery as well as so entertaining!

 

“The Following” Redux–Not Going There Again

In February I reviewed and recommended “The Following”, a Fox television drama series starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy.  There have been a total of nine episodes so far, but this past week’s episode has made me recant my earlier review.  How disappointed I am in this series!

The story is focused on two main characters:  an FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and a brutal serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) who has a cult following of wannabe killers, mostly young outliers trying to find a place to belong.  But the last episode has overstepped the boundaries for even the psychologically wounded law-enforcement officer and the psychopath: excessive: gratuitously violent scenes that take attention away from the story.

In February I acknowledged that this is one of the most violent shows currently on broadcast TV (and the series has received negative press because of the extreme scenes), I also found the story compelling enough as well as fearlessly acted by Bacon and Purefoy to justify the violence as necessary for understanding the ferocious nature of a psychopath.  However, with the last episode I fear that the long, bloody narrative has taken a backseat to violence for its own sake–a titillating, visceral thrill at seeing pain and torture.   The difference, I think, between violence which supports the story’s plot and “pornographic” violence” is the degree to which the violent acts give a better understanding of the characters and the consequences of their actions.  However, the story has become formulaic and has not moved forward in development of character or plot.  At its extreme, which this last episode demonstrated, “The Following” has bordered on computer-game violence–visual images for their own horrific impact,  appealing to an addictive fascination for some (especially young) viewers..  In this last episode the serial killer appears to have an orgasm after the kill.  Enough is enough!  Take this off the air.  Too bad– not even Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy can resurrect this sickening and exploitative violence, a malignant chemistry that does not belong on either mainstream television or in cinema.

 

“Silver Linings Playbook”–Behind Every Cloud

The best comedies go for truths, not laughs.  And, although “Silver Linings Playbook” is billed as a comedy, it is more a romance between two young adults with bipolar disorder whose families and friends have to deal with the turmoil that mental illness creates.

David O. Russell, the director of this blockbuster multiple Academy Award winner, wrote the screenplay partly as an acknowledgement of his son’s bipolar disorder and as a message about this form of mental illness. Russell has delivered two sympathetic characters to raise  our awareness.  In this way, “Silver Linings Playbook” is more than a very likable movie with two amazing dramatic performances. Rather it is a journey of a young 30-something man, Patrick Solatano (played by Bradley Cooper)  and a young 20-something woman, Tiffany Maxwell (the Oscar-winning performance by  Jennifer Lawrence of “A Winter’s Bone” and “Hunger Games“) who both suffer from bipolar disorder.

In the opening scene Pat is released from a mental institution after eight-months of therapy.  Slowly and painfully he tries to integrate back into his Philadelphia neighborhood, living with his parents (Robert de Niro and Jacki Weaver perfectly partnered for the family dynamics). Pat and everyone who loves him–friends and family–are determined not to let his condition break them apart.  Then the beautiful and promiscuous Tiffany enters his life. The core of the story is the healing of these two wounded people.

This film is nevertheless buoyant and touching, not depressing, and the essence and heart of the drama is not a comedy but a romance. There are some exceptionally funny scenes, which do not go after the cheap cringe-inducing laugh. The art of “Silver Linings Playbook” is in the balancing act between the bipolar patient who believes he or she doesn’t need medication and the hope that survival in the world of family and friends is still possible. Moreover, Bradley Cooper gives the performance of his career playing against type.  (His claim to fame previously has been for the “Hangover” man-child films.) There is no miraculous cure for bipolar disorder.  It permanently clouds the mind.  But there is a silver lining and that is what makes this movie a charming romantic narrative.  
 No matter what your personal experience may be with bipolar disorder, you will find “Silver Linings Playbook” an entertaining and tenderhearted movie.

 

“Parade’s End”–An Historian’s Downton Abbey?”

 

The five-part BBC/HBO miniseries “Parade’s End” premiered on HBO last week (February 26) and is also available on video-on-demand.  The playwright Tom Stoppard has adapted  Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 900 page, four-novel series “Parade’s End” for television:  the intellectual’s  Edwardian-era alternative to “Downton Abbey.”   Both series take place in the same time period, beginning with the decade before the First World War.  But the view of the British class system, the end of the Empire, and the attitude towards the war could not be more radically different.

Take the British class system as one example.  The mansion of the main character, Christopher Tietjens, is no less opulent or aristocratic than Downton Abbey but is not populated by kindhearted masters who confide in their servants.  Moreover, unlike “Downton,” which used the trench warfare in France mostly as a heroic experience for its young hero Matthew Crawley,  “Parade’s End” is a scathing indictment of the “Great War.” The massacre of an entire generation of young men on both sides of the front, and the distancing of the entire British elite in their club chairs and literary salons is mercilessly presented.

“Parade’s End” tells the story of a bad marriage, in an inner world tiny and self-contained, in  a privileged highly stratified society. Christopher Tietjens (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) believes in a code of conduct as well as high ethical standards no longer upheld by the majority of his peers (if they ever had upheld them).  Most of his social class is solely determined to hold on to their positions in society.   The era appears to be dying, and this is the tragedy.  Tietjens is clear-eyed about some of the impending changes and blindsided by others.

A brilliant statistician and analyst, Tietjens is also an anachronistic English gentleman, righteous to the point of rigidity and loyal to a fault towards Sylvia ( an astonishing Rebecca Hall), a haughty beauty who finds her husband’s punctiliousness and moral standards insufferable.  She will inflict any humiliation to elicit a response from her affectless spouse because he is the only one among her many male admirers not to find her irresistible.  Without Christopher’s desire for her, the other lovers are meaningless.

Tietjens’s morals are tested when he meets a lovely, intellectual young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (a winsome Adelaide Clemens), who returns his affections and his wit. He remains faithful to Sylvia, but the two are disgraced by gossip anyway.  Only Tietjens believes that war in Europe is imminent.  He volunteers to fight with the French, out of a sense of honor and duty, only to see that the war is cruel and futile.

“Parade’s End” is a more focused and darker story than “Downton,” as it gazes into its characters’ twisted souls and their self-destructiveness. The viewer needs to embrace the contradictions in human nature– the way one person can be both insightful and hateful (especially Sylvia).  While you always understand the connections among the characters on “Downton Abbey,” you have to piece them together yourself in “Parade’s End.” Critical elements of the characters often aren’t revealed but must be inferred.

This mini-series is much more subtle and moves slowly, as the early 20th century British aristocratic life did, with everything looking good on the surface but simmering with scandal and sensuality underneath.

Cumberbatch can convey volumes by simply curling his unusual Cupid’s Bow upper lip.  As an emotionally stifled Brit  small facial shifts can seem glacial.  He is a shift-changer: moving from nobility to foolish lover to respectful and generous, to broken and surviving.

“Parade’s End” has a different sort of entertainment value than “Downton Abbey”, but no less a visceral and addicting experience, without a shred of unnecessary dialog or emotion.