Originally published on Ink 19 on February 28th. 2019
Touch Me Not
directed by Adina Pintilie
starring Laura Benson, Tómas Lemarquis, Christian Bayerlein, and Hanna Hofmann
At the beginning of Touch Me Not, Romanian director, Adina Pintilie’s controversial 2018 Golden Bear winning film, Pintilie, as she herself appears on a screen in front of a camera, asks the question, “Why haven’t you ever asked me what this film is about?” An essential question indeed, as the apparent documentary and fictional elements will soon purposefully merge into one another to raise fascinating questions about the veracity of the events that occur in the lives of the film’s main protagonists, Laura and Tómas, who will soon begin an intense, sometimes cathartic investigation of intimacy, where they will encounter people who challenge their understanding of the necessity and importance of touch, which will force Laura and Tómas to examine their pasts and how the attitudes of the people around them have impacted their perception of self.
Laura (Laura Benson) is a British woman in her fifties who has put up rigid emotional walls due to what we are to understand is a strained relationship with her hospitalized father who she visits throughout the film. While Laura attends to her father, she feels the need to overcome this closed aspect of her persona, and so Laura sets out to work with a sex therapist on techniques that might allow her to open up again, and she also begins to interact with sex workers, who both identify as gender male and female, and speaks with these people about their lives, how they view themselves, and how they express their own sexuality. One of the sex workers whom Laura questions is a transgender woman named Hanna (Hanna Hofmann), who with her gentle, yet provocative nature, quickly raises Laura’s defense mechanisms, causing Laura to repel at first. But, after a clear discussion of individual boundaries and Hanna’s candid sharing of aspects from her own past, she encourages Laura to open up about her insecurities, beginning Laura’s progress to becoming a more intimate person.
Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis) is an Icelandic man who has been afflicted with alopecia, which has, in turn, impacted his own sense of self. To begin resolving his personal dilemma, Tómas ventures to a hospital in order to participate in therapy sessions which are formulated for people to touch one another and voice their honest opinions of their experiences in a group setting with a therapist present to guide and monitor their interactions. While in one such touch session, Tómas encounters Christian (Christian Bayerlein), a married computer programmer in his twenties whose life has been changed due to severe spinal-muscular atrophy. Christian is readily aware of how his physical appearance might cause a negative reaction, but Christian has fully accepted his disability, and through the peace and confidence in his acceptance, he has no fear of intimacy and is quite apt to explore his sexuality unlike Tómas. Through his communication with and observation of Christian, Tómas becomes more assured, and thus, he too can begin to accept himself as someone who can become closer to others.
The core technique that director Pintilie so effectively utilizes in Touch Me Not is an intentional vagueness of the reality of our protagonists’ interactions for the purposes of examining intimacy without formal construction. Neither narrative nor documentary structures exist within the film to impede the solicitation of our feelings and reactions for what we are seeing on screen. As we watch Touch Me Not, sometimes, we feel like we are observing pure documentary when Pintilie presents the touch therapy sessions between Tómas and Christian and the conversations that happen between Laura and Hanna. However, these moments are juxtaposed against other, more staged scenes, such as the one in an S&M club that takes place in the final third of the film, where many of our protagonists are seen and where their conversations and observations look intentionally scripted like a narrative film’s depiction of a dream or fantasy sequence. And, herein lies the unique essence and strength of Pintilie’s work. When dealing with issues of intimacy in cinema, we are normally presented with sexual scenes created to appeal to prurient interests. On the other hand, when a documentary approaches intimacy, it tends to observe human interaction in a clinical and unemotional manner. Pintilie does not use any scene of intimacy to evoke drama or sensationalism, and she does not strip empathy from any of those moments either. Instead, she makes every scene into a rich stimulus to extract our reaction and force it to the front of our consciousness, giving us a rare opportunity to confront our own issues of intimacy simultaneously as she progresses the film.
Much was made of the stark sexual elements in Touch Me Not when the film garnered the top prize at the 2018 Berlinale, but with the exception of the moments seen in the sex club, those elements are consistently countered with carnal scenes in open, therapeutic, and emotionally detached settings that provide blank canvases so that when we are forced outside of Laura’s and Tómas’s comfort zones through the carnality that we and they are presented with, we can easily see ourselves in the same places as either active participants engaging in the moment or as passive observers, where we can judge for ourselves the lines between our own forward facing façade and the reality that lies within that is sometimes hard to discern. Pintilie’s experimental and courageous approach to depicting intimate conversations and visuals rarely encountered in a non-exploitative manner has given us a much needed thought-provoking manipulation of the medium of film that we can use to examine ourselves and our own fears of how we are perceived by those around us
Review by Generoso Fierro