Clipping the Angel Wings: On Disability and Sexuality in Cinema
While science has an answer for every question concerning the human body, cinema has created an image for every emotion
“From the start, I knew that I had no chance at this game. The most awful thing that can happen is to be rejected. We protect ourselves by not expressing our expectations and desires, but it ends up with us having no desires” -- these are the words of Ursula, one of the characters in Amour Handicapé, a film by Swiss director Marlies Graf in which she collects testimonies from physically disabled people about their sexual experiences, their understanding of their sexuality and their approach towards it. All of them speak at length about their personal experiences, but “Ursula” was the only one who was able to articulate the relationship between “able-bodied” people and those with physical disabilities, the huge gulf between how each perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others, especially when it comes to sexual life. This perception often boils down to thinking of disabled people as asexual creatures — not only incapable of having sex in a normal way, but incapable of even thinking about it.
The image that society tends to adopt about physically disabled people is that of angels, symbolising purity and chastity. Able-bodied people cannot imagine them in sexual relationships, or even possessing such desires, as though the inability to do something also equates to not thinking about it. These beliefs come from a view of the mind as incapable of aspiring to a sexual life if the body is incapacitated; that the body, and only the body, is capable of knowing, being aware of, and professing these needs.
This raises many questions. What kind of body is capable of having sex? What kinds of sexual lives do people with physical disabilities have? How do people with physical disabilities perceive, and express, their sexuality?
While science has an answer for every question concerning the human body, cinema has created an image for every emotion, along with inventive ways of expressing it. And while restricted mobility can be a heavy burden on a body that has its boundaries drawn for it, cinematically, it carries vast potential for creativity, interpretation, and understanding. Cinema has played an important role in refuting the false angelic image imposed on people with physical disabilities, allowing us to delve into their psychological and sexual worlds, into the subtle differences between disabilities, and the effect each one might have on their perspective on sex and their ways of practicing it.
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012)
In this film, we meet “Stephanie”, a killer whale trainer who puts on shows in front of audiences at a marine park, and we delve into the experience of someone who was able-bodied and whose life was turned upside down when she lost her legs. Stephanie suffers a terrible accident during one of the shows that she presents with the killer whales. This becomes a turning point for her, not only because the disability prevents her from continuing life at its previous hectic pace, but also because it lays the foundation for a radical change in her overall perspective on love, relationships, and especially sex. Stephanie does not articulate these thoughts during the film, but we notice them in the details of her isolation, in her sudden withdrawal from life after she was living it with a vengeance: with dancing, late nights, and heavy drinking. After the accident, she is bound to a wheelchair, trying to take care of herself, refusing any visits or intervention from the outside that might make her feel like she is the object of sympathy or pity. The only person she trusts during this ordeal is a stranger: “Ali”, a bouncer in a nightclub, who once broke up a drunken brawl between her and another customer. He took her home and left his number, in the hope that she might one day call him.
This stage — the transformation from “normal” circumstances to an exceptional state — is, in essence, a battle with the body. The body that was once “whole” and capable of nearly everything is suddenly incapable of carrying out even the most basic daily functions. Sometimes we are unaware of our real issues, preferring to deny and ignore them, and an inner conflict ensues. This manifests itself in meaningless details, from which we create fake problems and end up feeling lost. We are always in need of another who can place us face-to-face with the problems that we need to confront and resolve.
Ali is chivalrous, spontaneous, violent. His only ambition in life is to make enough money through boxing to feed his son. He does not have a partner but has multiple sexual encounters, not out of hedonism, but strictly to satisfy his sexual needs. In his first meeting with Stephanie after the accident, he responds in an almost instinctive way, trying to help her out of her isolation by taking her to the sea. After months of seclusion at home, that day was Stephanie’s first encounter with the sea, and with her new body. Unable to resist the magnetic pull of the sea, she takes off all her clothes and asks Ali for help getting into the water.
We can’t speak, in this case, of full acceptance of disability, but for Stephanie this seemed to be a rediscovery of her body in its new form. This “incomplete” body displays a surprising generosity, allowing her to swim alone, with movements that surpass the normal act of swimming and take on the form of an elegant, erotic dance of emancipation. Stephanie’s first experience of her naked body impels her to change, and she finally obtains prosthetic legs that allow her to walk again, albeit in a limited way. In a conversation with Ali about romantic relationships, she says that nobody will care for her anymore, alluding to the difficulty of having sex. With complete spontaneity, Ali offers his sexual services, and Stephanie does not turn him down. The first experience is successful and thoroughly pragmatic; but it changes the course of their lives, and they embark on a journey of sharing their lives and work. We cannot speak of a love developing between Stephanie and Ali, because neither of them voice this, but despite the utilitarian nature of the relationship, there is a sincerity and some signs of deeper development, as declared by the director in the final scene.
Stephanie’s physical disability was a temporary, incidental problem that did not stand in the way of a sexual connection with a passion that promised continuity. Sex is a solution of course, but it cannot come before a personal and subjective encounter with the body. If we don’t give it time, it won’t give us life.
A violent film, in every sense of the word. Without subtitles or dialogue, Myroslav depicts the life of a gang of students in a special institute for the deaf, which is not subject to any supervision or control, a jungle where only the strongest can survive. Robbery, prostitution, fraud, murder, drugs: this is the life of the group, which “Sergei” enters as a new student and carves out his place in it. A microcosm of Ukrainian society, with its latent violence and problems of identity.
The director made the choice to have characters that only speak in sign language, and to shore up the credibility of the film he decided to employ actors who are actually deaf, so that they don’t need to perform this during the shooting. It was not an inconsequential choice: he wanted to reflect on the issues of communication in his society, and chose for his characters a disability that would sum up all the violence and convulsions generated by this inability to communicate.
Sergei falls in love with “Anya”, one of the students used by the gang in the prostitution ring they’re operating in the corners of the port, deserted by night except for those seeking out sexual services. The scenario might not seem special at first glance. Yet it is: in this case, engaging in sex work transcends the need for money and becomes a physical expression of sunbonscious, internal suffering, causing, in the characters shown, various outbursts of physical hyperactivity and raised voices even in normal conversation...
This intensity also applies to the sexual relationship that arises between Anya and Sergei. A relationship that does not know moderation, that swings between extremes of utter gentleness and the most horrific violence. In cinematic scenes that resemble paintings, Sergei and Anya enter a different realm, moaning in demented ecstasy, with hungry touches and gazes of boundless craving. In the process, every movement and act is intensified, as though they might compensate for the oppressive silence of the scene, leaving only body language free to speak of lethal desire and repression.
Sex is the only outlet for these two characters; it is the moment when their clamorous inner voices are finally still, journeying into a long silence. Neither of them hears the other’s moans of pleasure and excitement, but they can see them in the movements of the lips and eyes, and translate them into images or movements in their mind.
On the other side of the relationship, after Sergei steals money for a pregnant Anya to abort his child, he rapes her. It is as though the character cannot find a way other than this act of brutality to express his fear of losing this relationship, this love. A violent act that reflects even more violent emotions, when the body dominates the mind, controlling everything.
The film begins with two girls exercising on a beach. They pass in front of “Philip’s” window, who watches them from his wheelchair. He then prepares to go to sleep. His parents put him into bed and wish him a good night. Before his mother leaves the room, he asks her to put his hand on his penis so he can masturbate before he sleeps.
Philip suffers from almost complete paralysis. His sexual desires are only satisfied by watching porn. One day, he convinces two friends — “Jozef”, who is almost blind, and “Lars” who is suffering from cancer that makes him wheelchair-bound — to accompany him to Spain, where there is a brothel that specializes in providing sexual services for people with disabilities. Without knowing the details, and despite their fears, the parents agree to the trip at first; but the plan is cancelled after Lars’s health takes a turn for the worse. Still, Lars insists on going, saying that he doesn’t want to die without having had this experience, so the three friends leave secretly, along with “Claude”, a truck driver who takes care of them throughout the trip.
There are many adventures of various kinds throughout the journey — all except sex. It is as though Enthoven tries his utmost to have us experience, along with the characters, how it feels to wait for an eternity for something that our minds and every inch of our bodies is craving. With their different physical issues, the friends complete one another, trying to fulfill each other’s needs as much as possible. But this time, they have a shared need — the need for sex — that they cannot help each other with. Without falling into the trap of tears and sympathy, the director creates a band of warriors who know exactly what they want and how to get to it despite all the obstacles in their way.
For the three characters, it’s simple: sex is something they’ve never known and have to experience at least once in their lives. So they persevere until they arrive safely and can give themselves the greatest reward of all.
Philip and Lars finally enter their promised land, and Jozef, who has fallen in love with Claude, stays with her. We don’t see what happens next, but we understand everything when they emerge from the private rooms of the brothel with all weakness and despair having been erased from their faces. The director’s cinematic eloquence does not end there: he sums up everything the three friends can say to each other when they meet, portraying them as “able-bodied” people in a dreamlike scene, talking and laughing together. The scene is short, and ends with Lars dying on the beach the following morning.
The genius of cinema lies in its ability to breathe life into ideas that are frozen in our veins, emotions that have been buried by fear in the depths of our minds. It gives them lips, hands, legs, to speak and move among us freely, and even more, to enter our hearts, changing our perspective and ideas. These films, along with many others, have done exactly this by articulating physically disabled people’s relationship with their sexuality. This is a relationship that often remains concealed for fear of social judgement and the disabling views people hold. “Able-bodied” people give angel wings to people with physical disabilities to excuse them from sex, while cinema gives wings to their desires so they can unleash their authenticity and normalcy.