And then there are those the average moviegoer likely hasn’t even heard of. Yet.
The Oscars may have a reputation for awarding some of the glossier dramas and ignoring harder-hitting, more offbeat material, but every year at least a few of these challenging films manage to slip in, if not in Best Picture then maybe for a performance or a screenplay. The Sessions, Amour, and Rust And Bone are not widely known at this point except by those closely following the races, yet each looks like it’ll nab at least one nomination apiece, if not two or three.
Two of these films are in French. Two star at least one face that is familiar to mainstream moviegoers. And they all feature disabled people in various stages of love. Not entirely the most audience-friendly subject matter, sure, and yet they all hope to widen their audience with an Academy Award nomination or two.
By far the most mainstream-friendly of these is The Sessions, not only because it’s the only one in English, but also because it’s the only one to which the words “quirky” and “feel good” might apply. The Sessions is almost guaranteed at least two Oscar nominations in major categories ― Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt have so far cleaned up with nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes, and SAG, amongst others. And yet the performances haven’t achieved nearly the level of widespread buzz that Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook or Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln have. Maybe that’s because neither Hawkes nor Hunt is all that likely to win. But I expect you’ll be hearing more about these two in the coming months leading up to the Academy Awards.
The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, who was afflicted with polio at a young age and then spent most of his life in an iron lung. He can’t move his body above the neck, but he can feel everything. Including, yes, down there. As a 38-year-old he suspects he won’t have much longer to live, and in lusting after one of his nurses ― who scurries off once she realizes that her charge has warm and fuzzies for her ― he decides he wants to have sex for the first time.
But this isn’t exactly The 40-Year-Old Virgin With Polio. Mark’s best shot at making love is with a sex surrogate, who is not exactly a prostitute. Well, she’s like a cross between a hooker and a shrink. She’s played by Helen Hunt, a pretty down-to-earth wife and mother who wouldn’t think gets down for a living. As a man who’s never even touched a woman, Mark understandably has some confusion about sex, and also suffers from premature ejaculations. He and surrogate Cheryl have only six sessions to get it right, and over the course of this time, complex feelings develop.
The Sessions isn’t a love story, thankfully. It’s a wiser film than that — though romance does enter into the equation, for at least one and possibly both of the players. It’s not surprising that Hunt and Hawkes are virtual shoo-ins for Oscar nominations, given that the scenes featuring just the two of them are when the film is at its strongest. Hawkes is extraordinarily convincing as a disabled man, good-natured but not cloyingly so. He has a boyish innocence about him that you’ll find in many real-life people in similar situations. He falls easy for the attractive women in his life, the way a teenager would, and it’s uncomfortable to see him bare his feelings when those around him aren’t quite so comfortable being emotionally naked.
And speaking of naked ― Helen Hunt is naked in this movie. I mean, really naked. Full-on naked. Multiple times. You hardcore Helen Hunt fans can stop masturbating to Twister now, because this is Helen in her full glory.
(Her acting is really good too.)
The scenes between Mark and Cheryl are raw, funny, awkward, and true to life, dealing with sex in a frank way that few movies do. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the rest of the film, written and directed by Ben Lewin, doesn’t take this approach. The supporting characters are rather quirky, and outside of the bedroom, the tone has that cutesy indie sensibility, more like Little Miss Sunshine than My Left Foot. William H. Macy as the priest Mark sees (hoping to obtain his blessing in the “sin” of premarital sex) is particularly unnecessary, and never all that believable as a man of the cloth ― and the TV movie sensibilities of these scenes don’t quite gel with the raw, wonderful work Hawkes and Hunt do behind closed doors. It’s maybe the only graphically sexual movie you’d feel comfortable recommending to your grandparents.
In a crowded awards season, The Sessions won’t make the cut when it comes to Best Picture, and it sure isn’t one of the year’s ten best films. But a handful of scenes featuring Hawkes and Hunt make it worth seeing, and they will absolutely deserve their presumed Oscar nominations (which, as I mentioned, they are quite likely to get). Usually sex scenes are gratuitous, the least essential moments of any given movie in terms of character development and story. Here, they’re everything. You could leave just about everything but the sex on the cutting room floor, and you might end up with a better movie.
On the other end of the spectrum is Michael Haneke’s Amour, not a movie that anyone in their right mind will find sexy for even a fraction of a second. Yes, it’s that Michael Haneke, the auteur who brought us such light, breezy films as The Piano Teacher, Cache, and Funny Games (twice). You’d expect a film called Love from Michael Haneke to be drenched in irony, but love really is what it’s all about, in its purest form. It’s not the red-blooded, passionate kind you’d usually find in a movie about love. Here’s a movie about the end of love, one that might take place fifty years following the “happily ever after” in other romances. It’s the story of an old couple, Georges and Anna, happily married with grown children. They may occasionally disagree or lose patience with one another, but it’s obvious that they’re glad they spent their lives together.
But now, those lives are ending.
Amour might be the definitive movie about those twilight years of our lives, the inevitable decline of our minds and bodies. It begins with a flash-forward of a particular type of break-in at Georges and Anna’s apartment; then we flash back, to another night when someone has attempted to force entry into their home. It’s never explained who attempted that first break-in, but given that this is the beginning of the end, perhaps we can assume it’s the Grim Reaper himself. Death is about to intrude on the quaint, peaceful existence of these two, and though it didn’t quite get in this time, it will call again before this movie is through.
During breakfast one day Anna suffers a stroke; an ensuing surgery is unsuccessful and soon she is partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair with no choice but to have Georges wait on her. It’s a full-time job. He does so, without complaint. After all, don’t all couples know, in the back of their minds, this day will come? One will start to lose their faculties before the other, and it’ll be up to the spouse to take care of them. Or who else will? That’s part of the unspoken tragic irony of this film — as painful and humiliating as what Georges and Anna go through here is, they weren’t separated by a sudden accident or an untimely disease. They’ve grown old together. Despite the hell they’re put through, they are the lucky ones. It’s just that there’s no better alternative. There’s no good way to die.
As per his usual style, Haneke films primarily in master shots using long takes. He’s in no hurry, and restless moviegoers may grow impatient with indulgent shots of a housekeeper vacuuming for upwards of twenty seconds, or an old music student of Anna’s idly looking around the room while he waits for Georges to fetch her. While a few of these moments could have been shaved for a slightly more merciful run time, on the whole they are effective in conveying the slow and agonizing whiling away of hours at the bitter end. When these long takes involve Georges and Anna, as he struggles to comply with her many needs, it’s excruciating not because it’s long, but because it’s so physical and true. Georges is an old man himself; he relies on neighbors to carry heavy groceries upstairs. He’s not too far off from needing the very kind of assistance he’s providing Anna now. Haneke’s attention to detail is sublime; we’re right there with these two, and just like life, they don’t get to cut any corners.
As Georges, Jean-Louis Trintignant is understated and sensational, with few “big” moments or showy scenes. Many filmmakers would tell a story in which Georges’ patience dwindles as Anna’s needs grow, but here, much more truthfully, it’s the opposite. The more Anna demands of him, the more Georges understands that she is helpless, and he never blames her for the predicament they’re in. The usual marital grumblings disappear as Georges merely longs for the wife she used to be — not the young, sexy woman of her youth, but the competent companion he’s been with in the decades since. It’s his “amour” that the movie’s about; when all is said and done, when our bodies have given out on us, we can only hope we have someone who loves us this much.
Good as he is, the performance to marvel at is Emmanuelle Riva as Anne. As her condition worsens, she doesn’t say much, but every little thing she’s thinking and feeling is right there for us to read on her face. The shame, the frustration, the resignation. The physicality of her performance is remarkable, particularly in a scene in which Georges feeds her following a second stroke. It doesn’t feel like a performance at all — and in fact, it hardly seems like the same woman we met early in the film.
Amour is almost certain to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (and a likely win, though it’s an unpredictable category). Riva also has a strong shot at Best Actress. It’s the rare Foreign Language performance so powerful it’ll bust through the usual aversion to such films in major categories. And it’s absolutely deserving.
Last but certainly not least is Rust And Bone, also a strong contender in the Best Actress category (it is sadly ineligible as Best Foreign Language Film, since France submitted another). It’s from Jacques Audiard, whose last film was the critically-acclaimed A Prophet. This one stars Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer who suffers a terrible injury during a performance one day, losing her legs in the process.
Actually, the film doesn’t exactly star Marion Cotillard, even if she gets top billing. Her character’s role straddles the line between Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, given that she’s really a love interest for the film’s actual protagonist. He’s Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a security guard, fighter, and occasional thief who has just taken custody of his young son. (We never learn exactly what went down between him and his ex, but from what we gather, she’s even worse news than he is.) Alain isn’t a bad guy, but he’s a terrible father. He’s too self-involved to remember when to pick his kid up from school and primarily lets his sister Louise (Celine Sallette) do all the work in raising him.
Alain meets Stephanie at a night club where he’s working as a bouncer; his protective instincts kick in when she gets a bloody nose in a scuffle with another clubgoer. He offers her a ride home, but lest you think he’s too much the gentleman, he tells her she’s dressed like a “whore” along the way, effectively killing any semblance of attraction between them. Stephanie is suitably irritated and lets him come up to get some ice, even though her jerk of a boyfriend is home. After a not-too-memorable encounter, he leaves her his number and returns home, and that would be that.
Except for the horrifying incident that happens later. Describing Rust And Bone‘s plot makes it sound wretchedly saccharine and unintentionally funny, but it isn’t at all. It’s somewhat unclear what exactly happens to Stephanie, but a killer whale leaps out of the water and knocks her into the water, and when she wakes up in the hospital later, her legs are stumps. (Presumably eaten by an orca… no, seriously, don’t laugh, it really isn’t funny.) This is, of course, a terrifying realization, and Cotillard’s performance in this moment is one you can imagine Oscar voters thinking about when they check her name on the ballot. It’s the rest of her acting, though, that makes her so worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
We are mercifully spared a number of conventional “adjustment scenes” following Stephanie’s accident, though we get just enough of a glimpse at miserable she is. (For example: we never learn what exactly happened to that jerk boyfriend. But we can easily guess.) Stephanie idly calls Alain one night — why? Maybe because she is no longer in the position to rule out a connection merely because he called her a whore. Maybe that honesty even appeals to her now. Alain has heard about the accident and has no reservations about seeing her; he’s completely unassuming and too self-centered, really, to worry about how she might be feeling now. If he wants to go for a swim in her presence, he will; he has no time to coddle her or deny himself pleasure just because she’s self-conscious about her missing limbs.
It’s Alain’s insensitivity that allows a friendship to form between them. He’s alternately considerate and obtuse, but he treats Stephanie no differently than he did before, for better or worse. He’s so self-involved, actually, that he hardly seems to notice she’s missing her legs at all. Audiard gives the scenes between them zero sentimentality, and even when Stephanie feels pity for herself, Alain and the filmmaker don’t. Alain is a throughly real character — you’ve met guys like him, and quite likely thought they were douche bags. And when Alain carries Stephanie to the beach on his back, or offers to be her fuck buddy when he’s “OP” (operational), with no awareness of how a woman might feel in this situation, it’s hard not to fall a little in love with him, too.
Stephanie does, naturally — but she also handles the relationship like an adult, not like a cliched character from a melodramatic romance. We are spared the usual mechanisms of love stories in favor of sharp, observant scenes in which these people behave like themselves, not like screenwritten creations.
Notice I’m discussing the story and characters, not the supremely convincing special effects, even if maybe that’s the most buzz-worthy aspect of the film (and at least partially responsible for Cotillard’s impending Oscar nod). But believe me — the CGI removal of Cotillard’s legs looks so believable, you’ll wonder if they actually amputated her for the role. The camera doesn’t shy away from showing us Cotillard’s body in all its incompleteness. Her stump legs are initially shocking, but then gradually we grow accustomed to them as Stephanie and Alain do. In the hands of another filmmaker, Rust And Bone could have gone wrong in so many ways, either too exploitative or too schmaltzy, but in the hands of Audiard, it’s kinda sexy. And yes, we see multiple graphic sex scenes between Alain and the amputee; and no, that doesn’t make them less steamy.
One of the best things about Rust And Bone is that it rarely connects all the dots, providing just enough information for us to fill in the details ourselves. Stephanie never comes right out and says what she’s feeling, and Alain does nothing but say exactly what he’s feeling (even or especially when he shouldn’t), because that’s the kind of guy he is. Rust And Bone isn’t much of a love story because Alain sleeps with Stephanie the same way he sleeps with numerous other women, with no care for the feelings it may stir in her. It’s this exact treatment that allows her to feel whole again — because even if she’s being used to an extent, at least she’s being used like any other woman. It’s actually Alain’s estranged relationship with his son that comes into focus in the third act, rather than his affair with Stephanie (though the two storylines end up dove-tailing nicely). The plot is only conventional in the broadest sense, but the scenes take us to surprising places. There’s a nifty sequence in which Stephanie gets some of her mojo back while becoming a manager of sorts for Alain’s underground fighting career. But Rust And Bone avoids filling its third act with some crime genre cliche that would’ve been predictable and tedious, and instead goes somewhere more original and truly wrenching.
What fascinates about all three of these films, to varying degrees, is how much we can relate to them. To the shy virgin who questions whether or not his sexuality is “normal”; the 100% dependent old lady whose body has betrayed her, who feels inadequate because she can no longer give love, but only take it; to the woman who has been physically broken, but has probably been emotionally broken for far longer.
These films take what many of us feel in our relationships with others to the extreme; we don’t need polio or an amputation to know what it’s like to not feel good enough for the object of our affections. But because we know what it’s like, we connect to these characters even more than we would to the more pedestrian characters who populate most Hollywood love stories — because deep down, I think, we all feel a little broken. These three cinematic characters from 2012 are just showing it on the outside.