At the start of Touch Me Not, which opened the 2018 Romanian Film Festival in New York City, two men set up a device involving a glass plate and a camera. This is followed by a panning shot in shallow focus detailing the landscape of a male body, skin, hair, follicles, moles. The movement of the camera and its focus are perfectly controlled: light floods the body evenly, leaving no shadows, resulting in a flat objectivity with no physical feature being favored over another. The blurred face of Adina Pintilie, the director of Touch Me Not, appears on the glass plate. She is talking to someone about the film, questioning their relationship: “Why did you not ask me about the film? Or was it me being relieved you don’t ask?” A disembodied woman’s voice replies. The camera turns to reveal, Laura, who is played by Laura Benson, or who is Laura Benson. A svelte woman in her 50s with a mane of dark hair, the seasoned English actor has worked with Patrice Chéreau and other directors known for their exploratory approach to drama.
The stage is set for a film that is going to push limits in terms of form, of narrative, of objectivity and subjectivity. When Laura lets into her room a man who strips to reveal a taut body covered in tattoos, the fictionality of the scene lends itself to doubt. His reticent attitude in front of the camera suggests a real escort man, who is improvising the encounter to some extent. Are they in the actor Laura’s own room? A room in a hotel that is supposed to be her character’s room? A room in a hotel that is supposed to be a room in a hotel? Laura asks the escort the meaning of a text tattooed on his body, and he refuses curtly to answer. While she is not clear about her boundaries, he is. Nevertheless, he has no qualms masturbating in front of her on her bed, as that fits his job description. Once he leaves, she rubs her head with abandon in the sheets he occupied.
Laura’s fear of intimacy forms the film’s main narrative as we follow her various attempts to address the issue. Refreshing, since women of her age group rarely get starring status in films, let alone to explore sexuality and intimacy. As the audience, we get exposed to people we might not rub shoulders with often, and who do not fit in neat categories. Is the person who lectures Laura in a dress, with long hair and make up, with feminine breasts and a penis, a sex worker or a therapist? We would probably identify her as a cross dresser, or as a transgender once she takes her clothes off, but labeling loses relevancy in this narrative, as definitions get challenged. Her name is Hanna Hoffman, and she uses Brahms in her practice as a way to communicate with her customers or patients. She discloses her sexuality with much more ease than Laura shows at prying into her own. Also at ease is the therapist, clearly male, who probes Laura’s fears by touching various parts of her body, beginning with her arms, and her face. When he puts the tip of his fingers above her breasts, she lets out a leonine roar. Seani Love, his true name apparently, is in real life a successful sex worker in the UK. It’s evident that he has developed these techniques as part of his practice, and that Laura is reacting spontaneously, or at least improvising.
The accepted premise in a fiction film, even when improvisation plays a part in the process as in Mike Leigh’s films, is that the actors play imaginary characters, speak up lines, act up scripts in more or less fabricated sets. But an aspect of reality, with the associated element of chance, always figures in: the location, whether a city or a desert, often the time period, certainly the sky, the trees, the ground. And inversely, documentaries are always scripted to some extent, if only in the choice of the protagonists, the camera angle, the selection of dialogue and visual material. Touch Me Not, which bridges both genres, is presented as a fictional piece. Even in a film completely born out of fantasy, sci-fi or supernatural, even when every other aspect of reality has been stripped, the body retains its truth, at least in its physical presence. The actors stimulate personalities and identities, but their eyes really see, their throats contract to speak, they might suffer from diabetes, or be ovulating. It’s nothing new that films have been showing bodies, and bodies have been selling films. On display were select bodies deemed beautiful, and select parts of the body deemed sexy, at least in a particular era.
Touch Me Not concerns itself with bodies outside norms of beauty, with their contingency, with the emotions stoked by their interactions. When Laura’s father lies dying in a hospital bed, he looks truly old, but we are in the dark as to whether he really is sick, or dying, and we certainly doubt that he is Laura’s father in life. Yet another body in the film, this one past sexuality, this one mute and helpless, he seems reduced to his dying shell. But there is emotional baggage between them, and a suggestion that the anger Laura feels for him is linked to her fear of intimacy. Eventually, she breaks his favorite record right in front of his eyes. He winces. Emotions are still manning this nearly paralytic body.
Laura makes her way down the hospital’s corridors where clear partition walls promote transparency. A group therapy session catches her attention, one of its participants in particular. Played by Tómas Lemarquis, Tómas looks like he comes from the future with his hairless face and chiseled features. In fact, he has played in sci-fi blockbusters Blade Runner 2049 and X-Men: Apocalypse. She becomes obsessed by the unusual man, and stalks him. This leads to the second narrative thread, focused on Tómas. He is in a relationship with a woman where he seems to be “looking in” rather than fully engaged. Their rapport lacks definitions as the scenes are barely sketched, and do not include dialogue, but sex plays a part. Tómas’ narrative is more clearly fictional than Laura’s, and the less satisfying as the story line is rather banal, and the character of the girlfriend never developed. She breaks up the relationship, with the implication that she is dissatisfied with his incapacity for intimacy and closeness. Soon he develops an obsession for his ex partner, leading him to stalk her as Laura stalks him, a safe way to stay aloof. They look on as we, the audience, look on. But we aren’t allowed to sit back and enjoy the film as a kind of peepshow. In most fiction films, the director invites the audience to join in watching the actors from the other side of the fourth wall. This distancing often leads to an ironical perspective that is totally absent in Touch Me Not. Deconstructing the filmmaking process by featuring the director runs the risk of archness and futility — remember Woody Allen’s interventions in Sweet and Lowdown. The irruptions of the director in Touch Me Not, not always successful, forces the audience to engage. In a rather contrived effort, Adina brings in a dream where she and her partner are having sex with her mother present. More interestingly, she reports that her mother doesn’t really want to discuss the film while she’s making it. All categories are blurred: viewing vs being viewed, acting vs being for real, scripted vs improvised scenes.
The two storylines are connected by a non scripted element that also eschews a story arc, the therapeutic workshop where Laura spies Tómas for the first time. But is this section of the film purely non fiction? The man that leads the workshops looks like the epitome of the therapist or psychiatrist: 50s, handsome, trim, grey beard, suggesting he’s an actor. All members of the workshop are dressed in white, another clue that the scene is partly staged. The participants, some of them disabled, address issues of intimacy and body image. They learn trust by touching each others’ faces and bodies, talking about their feelings with openness, in their quest for love. This is where the most memorable protagonist is introduced, Christian Bayerlein, who has spinal muscular dystrophy. His condition has caused his body to underdevelop: frail torso, tiny legs and tiny arms bent backwards. He has the kind of face that would casually be described as misshapen, particularly the lower part. Irregular, stained teeth stick out of his mouth, begging to be fixed, and he drools constantly. He says he refuses the expression “suffering from disability”, as not applicable in his case. He is the character or person that is most at ease with himself and with his sexuality. It seems impossible that anyone could be left untouched by this man’s attitude to his body, to his disability, to life. Being outside the norm, he has probably examined every question relevant to his situation, and come up with his answers. As a result, he expresses himself with utter honesty. When asked about the favorite parts of his body, he answers “My eyes. And my penis because it’s full size, I’ve been told, unlike the rest of my body.” Everyone in the film speaks in English, the broken English that is our universal language now, says the director. Only a couple of actors speak it as their mother tongue, their control of the language sounding artificial while everyone else makes grammatical errors, uses approximate vocabulary, swathed in accents of various thickness. Touch Me Not, a co-production between five countries: Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany and France, is European not only in its budget structure, but also in terms of team and protagonists. The film takes place in an unspecified country, in an unspecified city, all clues to the exact location suppressed. The illusion creates a generic European city, giving the film not only a certain universality (homosexuality, and ethnic minorities are oddly omitted with no explanation forthcoming), but an element of fantasy or science fiction. This erasing of borders was important to the director who feels that addressing our intimacy problems at the level of our microcosms will benefit in turn the global political sphere. Each individual, damaged by taboos and preconceptions, searches for healing in the film, as a kind of pilot test for our suffering world.
The white clothing in the workshop, the all white environment, and the flooding white light bring to mind a futuristic experiment. A project of this genre would be expected to be shot in a Cinema Verité style. Cassavetes never paid much attention to style when he explored emotional depths, his films were all about content, people, drama. Unpredictably, Touch Me Not has a stylized visual approach, luminous images, carefully composed shots and narrow focus, some one-shot scenes being completely blurred. The style, instead of presenting the body as an imperfect object, mortal, decaying, with fleshy, shadowy images, brings to mind 2001 A Space Odyssey and its futuristic spirituality. For the duration of the film, of the shot, each body is endowed with perfect beauty. The elaborate audio track includes a striking musical score, and sound edits that often stress contrasts from one scene to the next, keeping the audience alert. The director is very much in control of her art, in terms of cinematic language, pace, placement of camera. In editing, she tends to focus on the listener rather than the talker, on the reaction rather than the action. More than a film, Touch Me Not is the collaborative outcome of an 8-year long process:‘We explored procedures such as family constellation, video diaries, re-enactments of memories and dreams, and staging reality.’ Says director Adina Pintilje. ‘We created a sort of “laboratory” in which fiction often functioned as a protective space (…).’ It seems paradoxical that such a humanistic work would tend to estheticizing. One of the participants in the workshop, Grit, presumably his nurse, takes care of Christian. She has long reddish hair and a strong, voluminous body that do not fit Western norms of beauty, yet she is depicted as a kind of northern goddess. To move him around the space, she lifts his light, horizontal body as if he were a lamb, or some strange deity with tiny, folded limbs. This unforgettable image could be perceived as grotesque, but because the film has busted all norms, it leaves an impression of transcendental care, of gentleness, of acceptance. Later we understand that Grit is his wife. By the end of the film, Christian’s unique shape that he so wisely embraces has gained beauty in our eyes, justifying the cinematic stylization, as do Grit’s and Laura’s and Tómas’. Since the protagonists free themselves from norms and taboos and restrictions, our involvement as audience makes us question our own norms. If we allow our confines and inhibitions to be challenged, we might emulate Laura and her liberating roar.
Our comfort is further called out by the practices in an S&M club. A loose narrative device introduces this location: Tómas as he stalks his ex partner, follows her ultimately to the club where he mostly observes. The ex girlfriend, her body bound and gagged, is first staged, interacting with a masked man in graphic sexual acts. The participants are encouraging the couple. The S&M club shows a different facet of the film’s exploration, in a kind of cubist vision with multiple perspectives. While the visual style is consistent, this section has a different look, with a black background, and compositions that are intricate, and moody. The club, lacking clues to its exact identity, does not look like a real space, but like someone’s sexual fantasy. The director’s? Tómas’? Christian and Grit are in attendance, surprisingly, as well as the transgender sex worker Hanna. It seems dubious the couple would patronize this club, and engage in S&M games. The fact that some participants are actors, and others are club members, or at least S&M disciples, allows freedom for everyone to explore, to try out new roles. This is where Grit and Christian engage in sexual intercourse on camera.
Intimate situations and graphic acts tend to elicit irrational reactions. Yet no one could mistake this film for pornography, nor could it be termed erotic, as it does not aim at arousing sexual excitement. Audiences have been typically divided along sharp lines by this uncategorizable film, a common occurrence with sexually explicit works. The shock wave tends to mask the true quality of a film, leading to a loss of objectivity. Audience engagement depends on whether the individual film goer can put up with a certain rawness, and tolerate challenges to their comfort zone, or prefers a perfectly packaged product. Touch Me Not, after getting mixed reviews, was far from being a favorite when it premiered at the Berlinale Biennale. The festival took the film world by surprise when it bestowed the new comer both the Best First Feature Award and the Golden Bear. Adina Pintilie, who has directed short films and documentaries before Touch Me Not, is the sixth woman to win the Golden Bear in its 67-year history, and the only director to have won both awards for the same film. The work is divisive, and the award has been divisive too. Critics have argued that the distinction was a way to support the #metoo movement, rather than the film’s artistic value. A mix of talent, skill and gaucheness coexist in this highly original film which, passionate, intense, utterly sincere, doesn’t breathe a hint of humor or lightness. Complexity is puzzling, but so much richer than straightforward effectiveness – see Hollywood’s predigested fare. The Biennale jury, which abstains from ever explaining its decisions, has chosen to mark the arrival of an important filmmaker on the fiction scene.
Touch Me Not will have its New York premiere at MoMA on Jan 11, 2019
Arabella Hutter von Arx is Paris and New York City Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.