Movies about Sex and Disabilities. Films reviewed: Hyde Park on the Hudson, Rust and Bone PLUS Morgan, Beeswax.
In movies, disabilities were traditionally there to provide tragedy and pathos. People have an accident and end up in a wheelchair or a bed… my life is over, I will never work again, so sad. Or else they were a signal of great personal triumph. Look ma, I survived! Occasionally, you’d have the villain in horror movie, bitter, evil, deformed, taking out his pain on other people. Witches with canes, super-villains in wheelchairs…
Then came the movie-of-the-week disabled person as the frail victim, the pitied, while their counterpart character is strong, powerful, and privileged one. They either die or “get better”.
We haven’t even reached the point where disabled people become the equivalent of the token black neighbour or gay best friend. (exceptions: Drake on Degrassi).
That’s why it’s neat to have two new movies with normal, fascinating, multidimensional, central characters who have, but aren’t defined by, their disabilitt. Their disability is part of the plot but not the central reason for the character.
And, most important, people with disabilities are shown to be sexual. So this week I’m looking at two new movies, both romantic dramas, one light, one powerful — where one of the two main characters – the one with more education, wealth and power – has a disability.
Hyde Park on the Hudson
Dir: Andrew Michel
It’s the 1930s, the Great Depression, and Daisy (Laura Linney) has fallen into hard times. So she likes it when she gets summoned to visit a distant relative Franklin (Bill Murray) who is doing much better. He’s a stamp collector — he’s staying at his mother’s estate in the Hudson Valley in Western NY. Oh yeah… and he’s the President. FDR to be exact. Well they get along famously and one day he takes her for a drive into the hills, leaving his Secret Service agents behind. And what happens at the top of the hill? (Cover your ears, kiddies.) She gives him a handjob.
And so begins their long-term relationship. He builds a secret house for their trysts – he’s married to Eleanor Roosevelt – and they form a warm and loving special relationship. But the movie also focuses on another special relationship: One crucial weekend, when King George and Queen Elizabeth – in sort of a prequel to The King’s Speech – are visiting the states to get them to get on board in the soon-to-come war against Hitler.
The Queen (the current Queen’s mother) is portrayed as a shrewish manipulator with the young, stammering George as a weakling, prey to her machinations. What are hot dogs and why are they asking us to eat? Why did they put political cartoons of George III on the wall? They’re insulting us!
Then there’s Roosevelt — he had polio as a kid. At the time, in official photos, his disability was always hidden, never spoken of, never photographed. But as this a backstage view of his life, he’s constantly being lifted from room to room or moving about in a specially-designed wheelchair. The same is true of their relationship:
I liked it. It feels like a PBS Masterpiece Theatre episode, complete with stately homes and royalty, but with stupendous acting and subtle writing. This is actually a good, touching movie, an historical drama based on newly discovered material about a person – Daisy – who is largely unknown. Some historical details seem questionable – were his servants really white not black? – and some are surprising – The Canadian PM William Lyon Mackenzie King was the one who brought George and Elizabeth to meet FDR that weekend, yet he was nowhere to be seen. (As usual, Canada is erased from the picture.)
The acting is great, both Bill Murray and Laura Linney are fantastic. The casting didn’t worry too much about looking like the real thing – Eleanor Roosevelt as a very beautiful woman? She was known for her inner beauty more than her movie-star good looks – it was more about conveying their personalities. While the characters’ feelings are kept largely opaque, it still conveys the story.
Rust and Bone
Dir: Jacques Audiard
Ali is a ne’er-do-well single dad and fighter from Belgium. He has to take his cute kid Sam to the south of France to stay with his sister when his wife, a junkie, ends up in jail. He’s a terrible father, self-centred and irresponsible, a negative role-model. His sister, and her husband, a trucker are responsible and take on the child-rearing responsibilities.
But Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is Sam’s dad, so he takes care of him as much as he can, which isn‘t much.
He’s irresponsible but also totally spontaneous. He sees a woman he likes, sleeps with her, moves on, no strings. If they’re free – they text they’re “OP” (operational) and they meet.
He has no job experience but is good fighter, so he lands a job as a bouncer at a nightclub. There he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) an older woman, very beautiful, who works as an orca trainer (!) at Marineland. She’s not there for a pick-up; she just wants to be the object of desire by others.
Ali helps her when a fight breaks out and treats her with respect… even though he always says the wrong thing (he’s a Flemish speaker.)
Then Stephanie has a serious accident at work with the orcas, and her life changes. She’s caught in a funk of self-pity and hatred. Ali, meanwhile is moving up to sketchy work as a security guard and open air Mixed martial arts fights where he gets a cut of the bets in the fight.
So depressed Steph calls him up – maybe this odd couple can get together and help each other survive? Will he bring her back to life? Will she teach him to behave in a civilized way? Will he take responsibility as a father? Will they ever have an actual relationship?
I don’t want to give any more of the story – and it’s a terrific story! – but suffice it to say, it’s a deeply moving romance, a drama, a family story, a boxing movie, and lots more. The director, Audiard – he made A Prophet, another great movie — is fantastic, all the supporting actors (especially Corrinne Maseiro as Ali’s sister and Armand Verdure as Sam, his son) are amazing. But the two main leads Schoenaerts and Cotillard – are powerfully perfect in their roles.
Also worth mentioning is the low-budget drama Morgan (Dir: Michael D. Akers) that was screened at this year’s Inside-Out LGBT Film Festival in Toronto. In this film, Morgan (Leo Minaya), a competitive bike racer is disabled in an accident on a steep hill in Central Park, which is on the very path of the tournament he wants to win. After a struggle, and with the help of a caring boyfriend Dean (Jack Kesy) who he first meets on a basketball court, he decides to tackle the race once again, this time using a bike adjusted to fit his disability. This movie sensitively shows how partners can learn to treat a disability as a normal, erotic part of their sexual lives.
And the realistic film Beeswax (Dir: Andrew Bujalski), from two years ago, also doesn’t shy away from sex involving a person with a disability. A nice, comfortable film, Beeswax is about the secrets and tensions shared between two sisters (played by real-life twins Tilly Hatcher, Maggie Hatcher).
Hyde Park on the Hudson opens today, and Rust and Bone opens next Friday, Dec 21st. I don’t reveal my top ten movies of the year until the end of the month, but I guarantee Rust and Bone will be in that list. Also now playing is the very cute Korean romance A Werewolf Boy, which played at TIFF this year, about a boy raised by wolves, the girl who dog-trained him to behave like a person, and the romance that grew between them.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .