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The Body: Double Feature

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I went to back-to-back screenings on Monday night in New York City that combined to make a very interesting double feature, each playing off the other in moving and intricate ways.

The first -- shown at Sony's screening room at 550 Madison Avenue -- was Amour, Austrian director Michael Haneke's austere and achingly intimate portrait of a marriage which won the Palm d'Or this year at Cannes. The story of the film involves a couple in their 80s, retired music professors, who must deal with the rapidly declining health of the wife when she suffers a couple of strokes. She makes her husband promise not to house her in a hospital or hospice and he cares for her at home as she declines further and further and deeper and deeper into her speechless, motionless stupor. He feeds her. Forces her to drink liquids. Changes her diapers. Sings to her old childhood ditties in an attempt to stir mnemonically her emptying mind. Has fractured conversations when she is slightly lucid. Eats by himself. Comforts himself after he has nightmares while sleeping beside her.

The stark loneliness of their existence -- even though their love is deeper than ever -- is marked by the basically music-less soundtrack of the film unless there is a remembered moment from their fuller shared musical past. And yet there is a kind of courtship taking place that mirrors the earlier courtship when they first met as he courts her toward the moment of her death now instead of the moment of their matrimony. And when that death does occur it is a kind of consummation as carnal and shocking and passionate as any act of love -- which it is -- could possibly be.

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the husband, George. Emmanuelle Riva plays his wife, Anne. Isabelle Huppert plays their daughter, Eva. Trintignant first attracted attention 56 years ago as the young man seduced by Brigitte Bardot in ...And God Created Woman before starring in A Man and a Woman, The Easy Life, Z and The Conformist. Riva, 85, was first a star at Cannes in 1959 when she played the nameless European in Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour. She and Trintignant have never before appeared together in a feature film and they each are giving exquisitely nuanced performances. I hope they each are nominated for Oscars. The film might be too austere and even too difficult finally to sit through for older Academy members to nominate it for Best Picture. It is quite an achievement however.

I had 20 minutes after Amour to walk the few block up to the Paris Theatre on 58th Street to see a screening of The Sessions, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It, too, is a film about a paralyzed body and the intimacy involved in caring for it. In this film, however, the intimacy takes its cue from sexuality and such a body's carnal needs and not just the memory of them. Written and directed by Ben Lewin, it is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, a poet paralyzed from neck down due to polio who hired a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt star as O'Brien and his sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene. Hunt gives a brave, even liberating performance as Greene. She certainly displays no inhibitions in her full-frontal nude scenes -- which are appropriate for such a role -- and shows the woman's own emotional needs in an equally brave and uninhibited way. It is a lovely unsentimental performance full of empathy and sentiment. John Hawkes, who was nominated for an Oscar for his backwoods meth addict in Winter's Bone, may get his second nomination for this portrayal of a man who lives so much of his life inside an iron lung. His is a life-affirming performance, one that only utilizes his body from the neck up. Hunt's performance utilizes her very beautiful body from the forehead down since the only thing more paralyzed than O'Brien's body in the film is the seemingly overly Botoxed upper region of the actress's face. One could have screened the film itself on the vast smooth unmoving expanse of that forehead. Once she's nude, however, one's eyes move to that gorgeous body of hers. The sex scenes between Hawkes and her are explicitly executed yet oh-so-sweetly played. The movie touched me deeply.

Each film -- so different in their approaches -- shows us how love can transcend the body even as it is centered on it. A great double bill.