Feel-Good Films About Disabilities Need to Also Make You Feel Bad

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Four films this season deal with disabled individuals and the people who care about them—and despite its success, The Sessions is the worst of the pack.

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UGC Distribution / Sony Pictures Classics; Gaumont; Fox Searchlight; Sony Pictures Classics

The hive mind has spoken, and the theme at the art house this Oscar season is disability. This year gives us four acclaimed movies released in the U.S. (though most of them foreign) dealing with love and companionship for people with physical impairments. One of the best arrives in the States this week: Rust and Bone, French director Jacques Audiard's follow-up to his 2009 masterpiece, A Prophet. Once it expands beyond its extremely limited initial release, it will hopefully start poaching viewers from the weakest of the quartet: the growing indie hit The Sessions, which qualifies as a sleeper both in the expanding success of its box-office take, and its lazy, inspiration-by-numbers approach to its subject matter.

Both films feature characters with physical disabilities—polio for Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions, and the sudden loss of her legs in a freak killer-whale accident for Rust and Bone's Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard)—who are taught to reconnect with their physical selves. In both cases, the key components of that rehabilitation are 1) sex and 2) individuals with complicated personal histories that have left them emotionally disconnected. The able-bodied halves of these pairs need help just as much, if not more than, the people with the more-visible limitations. You can easily imagine how those plot arcs have the potential to be as emotionally manipulative as one of those tear-jerking Folgers Coffee "Coming Home" Christmas commercials. It's to these films' credit that they never follow a path nearly that easy.

But while The Sessions isn't a bad movie, despite the over-the-top festival buzz and effusive praise, it left me without the euphoric feeling so many others seemed to get from it. It took Audiard's thornier take on the subject matter to help me understand why: to truly pull off a feel-good story about disability, it helps a lot if a film can make you feel bad at some point.

It's instructive to first look at the other two films of this quartet, which offer an even clearer dichotomy: the international box-office juggernaut of The Intouchables, and Amour, Michael Haneke's second consecutive film to win the Palme D'Or at Cannes. The former is a relentlessly cheery inspirational dramedy about an African-born ex-con who is hired as a caretaker by a rich Parisian tetraplegic. Haneke's film is a relentlessly bleak story about an elderly Parisian couple, one of whom becomes despondent and suicidal after losing control of half her body following a stroke, and then is rendered a near-invalid when a second stroke leaves her bed-ridden and barely able to communicate.

The Intouchables shows disability as we fervently hope it would manifest itself should we ever suffer such misfortune. There is no shortage of resources or quirky characters to deal with the difficult circumstances. A little street wisdom, some Earth, Wind, and Fire, and a joint smoked on the banks of the Seine on a crisp Paris night will help you find the brighter side of life, it says. In comparison, Amour is a splash of cold water on the face—or perhaps an icy blade to the throat—reminding us that even the lives of the privileged and cultured often end in desperate near-isolation. It's not difficult to figure out which of these two has grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide and will end the year as the highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S., and which has taken in a small fraction of that amount.

There's no rule that says the tougher film has to be the better one, but the problem with Intouchables and The Sessions is that they achieve their sunny dispositions by pulling punches. Any hint of difficulty is immediately tempered so as not to upset the lightly comedic tone of both films. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene in The Sessions when a power outage causes a failure in the iron lung that allows Mark to breathe. While it's in character for the devoutly Catholic Mark to greet potential death with the same beatific acceptance he carries through much of the rest of his life, that doesn't mean the film can't recognize the dire nature of the circumstances. This should be a tense moment, but The Sessions refuses to acknowledge highs and lows, tension and release. It flatlines from start to finish, even if Mark doesn't.

Audiard strikes a better balance in Rust and Bone, demonstrating that one can take a pat inspirational story and infuse it with the hardship required to make that inspiration feel earned. Following the loss of her legs, Stéphanie is nearly as defeated as the stroke victim of Amour. As a whale trainer, she makes her living on her feet, and her character's despair is palpable. More importantly, Audiard makes it impossible to turn away from that despair, unlike the glossed-over expository conversations in Intouchables and Sessions about how their characters dealt with that loss.

There's no rule that says the tougher film has to be the better one, but Intouchables and The Sessions achieve their sunny dispositions by pulling punches.

Stéphanie's companion in the film is Ali, a Belgian single father who cobbles together an existence for himself and his young son as a bouncer, security guard, and sometime street fighter. He's a hulking physical presence, but emotionally, he's as cut off at the knees as she is. Like Cheryl (Helen Hunt), the sex surrogate working with Mark in The Sessions, Ali offers Stéphanie a chance to reconnect with her body, ostensibly without the intrusion of emotional entanglements; sex is just corporeal for him, like going for a run or having a meal.

In both cases, there are unintended attachments that result in breakthroughs for both Cheryl and Ali, but Cheryl's marital issues—like so much in The Sessions—are barely sketched. Ali's backstory may be murky, but Audiard is clear in depicting how much the fighter uses his flesh to feel things that his heart can't. Given Ali's taciturn nature, he accomplishes that end mostly with virtuoso visual flair, which highlights another problem with The Sessions: It has the cinematic sense of a TV movie, and the dullness of the images drags the story down with it.

Three of these films all end up in similar places (Amour has different intentions, so that comparison ends here), but take far different paths. In the race to an inspirational peak, Intouchables and The Sessions airlift their protagonists 100 feet from the top and let them do the rest. But the rock bottom that Stéphanie and Ali both hit is where they have to start their grueling climbs. The comforts of the other two might be more immediate, but the hard-earned ones in Rust and Bone are, like the movie, more likely to endure.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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