The 60th San Sebastian kicked off on Friday with Arbitrage, a surprising choice for opener since it sees the financial crisis through the eyes of Wall Street banker (Richard Gere) who is involved in a fatal car crash while in negotiations to sell his deeply fraudulent company. Austerity measures are big in San Sebastian this year – the whole Basque region is closing down tomorrow as part of a mass regional protest – but the presence of stars Gere and Susan Sarandon perhaps diverted a bit of attention from the film's somewhat kid-gloves treatment of the rich and immoral. Hollywood types are big round here, and even Oliver Stone's tepid Savages – which barely caused a stir in the US and was dismissed almost entirely in the UK – found a good reception here.
Otherwise, San Sebastian remains an excellent catch-up festival (not to mention a great place to get a steal on the upcoming London Film Festival). Such films included the Sundance faves Beast Of The Southern Wild and Bart Layton's terrific doc The Imposter, Michael Haneke's Palme D'Or winner Amour and Toronto smash Argo (not much seems to have migrated from Venice). Two I wanted to see were Pablo Larrain's Cannes sleeper No and the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die (pictured), winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin. I expected to like the former more than the latter, but I was pleasantly surprised. Larrain's film is really rather warm, bittersweet and even funny (which is what you usually get when you hire Gael Garcia Bernal, I now realise). Dealing with the end of Pinochet's dictatorship, it is a harsh, shot on video drama that deliberately uses the rough grain of U-matic video (even the credits are out of register) to capture the era when an advertising executive used cheesy Madison Avenue marketing techniques to sell democracy to the people of Chile. I liked it but didn't love it, finding it a little long and uneven, but its faith in people power is infectious.
The same cannot be said of Caesar Must Die, which, at 76 minutes, is a great festival digest. Based (I think) on a real-life prison theatre company, it follows a staging of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in what looks to be a maximum security prison in Rome. These are proper criminals – robbers, mobsters, murderers – and their take on the play is tailored accordingly, focusing not on Caesar but on Brutus, who betrays his best friend for what he thinks is a higher cause. The prison setting really brings out the film's themes of plotting and backstabbing (literally), and the cast frequently break character to add their own lines and indulge their own feuds. The final 20 minutes lose a bit of steam but this is a frequently terrific film about art and freedom, how drama transports the mind and, in a deeply sad coda, how far away from normal life and society these men really are.
So... prison is no joke, but did you hear the one about the sex therapist and the man in the iron lung? On paper it doesn't seem to be made of the stuff of light, feelgood comedy – it is, after all, based on the true story of a man so severely disabled by polio that he could only move his head by 90 degrees – but Ben Lewin's The Sessions, a lean, economic romantic drama (launched in Sundance as The Surrogate, where I passed on it, presuming it to be a sappy Hallmark pregnancy story) manages to be both simple and yet deceptively rich at the same time. San Sebastian audiences lapped it up, and as I write this blog it is nudging past Michael Haneke's Amour in the audience award stakes. Which is great news to me, as Lewin's film perfectly complements Haneke's, since its view of death is very, very different, concerning a man whose daily life is an indignity, at the whim of the moods of his various carers, and whose fate is followed with love and compassion, not fear and pride.
John Hawkes is the star, and if the various awards bodies can get past the film's conceit and its very frank sexual language then he and The Sessions could and should fly, It is almost entirely perfect for the film it wants to be, finding new ways to express familiar ideas and doing so with a great deal of wit and warmth. At 97 minutes, it doesn't seem like a second is wasted, which is high praise for a film about a man who spends most of the film near-motionless and flat on his back.
It begins with 1980s news footage, which is a smart move in itself since it shows the film's real-life subject, Berkeley student Mark O'Brien, accepting his degree in what looks like a motorised gurney. The fact that it IS a motorised gurney immediately suggests that all bets are off for him; indeed, with what little is available to him – a stick in his mouth, with with he hits keypads and keyboards – O'Brien is a stunningly resourceful human being. Yet this is not one of those films that pats the disable person on the back and piles on the strings with every miraculous twitch and tic. What's genuinely new about The Sessions is that O'Brien emerges as a very real, rooted and incredibly likeable person, funny and charismatic, a man with friends rather than sympathisers. There are no fantasy flourishes to take us into his lockdown world – what we see is what we get.
Unlike such films as The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, The Sessions is firmly set in the everyday, and the anchor of the film is really a series of two-hander conversations with William H Macy as his parish priest. Let's not forget Macy's chances in the upcoming awards scrum either, since this is another one of his brilliant, unshowy character roles, listening with a mixture of concern and mortification as O'Brien reveals his wish to lose his virginity with the aid of sex therapist. Macy's face is frequently a picture, and those moments are what really sell the movie – the double takes, the disbelief, the pennies dropping, the scenes that enable the audience to loosen up and enjoy a film that, in the wrong hands, would be, at best, uncomfortable.
We also have Helen Hunt to thank for this, since her role as sex therapist Cheryl is an eye-opener by anyone's standards. Hunt reveals more than hidden depths here, showing plenty of surface as a woman who, in helping him come to terms with his body, makes an unexpected connection with O'Brien's mind. Indeed, this is really the core of Lewin's movie, not simply paying lip service to the old adage about love being blind but pretty much proving it by having us fall for O'Brien too without any sleight of hand or trickery. Which is why the film is immediately one of my favourites of 2012, including not one but several decent roles for women and with a story that really resonates – a genuine American love story in the truest possible sense.