‘Touch Me Not’: ‘We want you to question preconceived ideas about intimacy, sexuality, body’

The Romanian director Adina Pintilie mixes documentary and fiction in her study of sexual intimacy, but when the film took the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, critics were outraged

Touch Me Not

Touch Me Not

 

The Berlinale has a long history of rewarding controversial or difficult films. Over the past decade, the festival has handed over gongs to Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Pablo Larraín’s The Club, José Padilha’s Elite Squad and Ildikó Enyedi’s tremendous On Body and Soul. Still, earlier this year, when Romanian director Adina Pintilie’s feature debut, Touch Me Not, took home the Golden Bear from the Berlin International Film Festival, several commentators seemed to entirely lose their minds.

Pintilie’s experimental study of sexual and physical intimacy was already regarded as a controversial inclusion in the Berlinale’s main competition before it was named best film by a jury led by the German director Tom Tykwer.

Its subsequent triumph was greeted with dismay by several prominent critics, including Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, who compared the win to the victories of Brexit and Donald Trump and, in an acerbic takedown, dismissed the film “. . . which deluged me in a tidal wave of depression at how embarrassingly awful it was, at its mediocrity, its humourless self-regard, its fatuous and shallow approach to its ostensible theme of intimacy, and the clumsy way all this was sneakily elided with Euro-hardcore cliches about BDSM, alternative sexualities, fetishism and exhibitionism”.

I do believe the film comes at a time when this kind of human dialogue is deeply needed

In the Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young praised the same picture for being “beautifully crafted with sure-handed sophistication”.

“There’s no room for prudes in the illuminating film Touch Me Not, where characters grapple with the pleasures and pains of their naked bodies and how they relate to them,” she continued.

Polarity

Pintilie is not overly surprised by the polarity of much of the criticism.

“Immediately after the Berlinale, there has been a surge of divisive feedbacks mainly from film critics and journalists, covering the entire spectrum, from outright praise to very negative,” says the filmmaker. “It’s very interesting to notice, though, during the past months of travelling with the film around the world, that actually the reactions of the regular viewers are not so divided, that we encounter a very warm, emotional reception everywhere we go. And it’s fascinating and heartwarming to see how people open up emotionally after the screenings and start to share with us their own personal experiences and feelings.

“I do believe the film comes at a time when this kind of human dialogue is deeply needed. In today’s world, where we are facing so much prejudice and we are increasingly afraid of the Other, the film proposes us to befriend this Other, who can often be so different than ourselves.”

Even the most venomous detractors of Touch Me Not would have to concede that the film is a unique viewing experience. Poised somewhere between drama and documentary, the project pivots around Laura Benson, a fiftysomething English actor who is seeing a number of sex therapists in order to deal with her issues with intimacy. Staged or recreated therapy sessions introduce other participants, including Tómas Lemarquis, the distinctive Icelandic actor who appeared in Snowpiercer and Blade Runner 2049, and who lost all his hair at the age of 13 to alopecia universalis. Lemarquis’s exchanges with Christian Bayerlein, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), make for most affecting scenes.

“Christian has one of the most harmonious relationships with his own body, even if he’s mostly unable to move,” says Pintilie. “And his relationship with Grit, his partner, their progressive views on intimacy, the way they explore their sexuality, have been a permanent source of joy and inspiration for all of us. And the relationship which developed, during our process, between Christian and Tómas was deeply authentic and had a major transformative impact on the latter. Christian had a strong emotional motivation to be part of our journey, which he shared with us from the very beginning.”

Disability

Bayerlein, a disabled rights activist with a blog on issues of disability and intimacy (kissability.de), is but one product of an unconventional casting process. Starting in 2013, Pintilie began searching out people on “the same wavelength”. The cast, a mix of actors and non-professionals, were encouraged to keep video diaries. Through discussions on Skype, Pintilie developed the themes and scenes they would later shoot.

“A group of gifted and brave people took the risk to embark together with me in an often very challenging emotional journey, existing in the blurred area between their real biographies and their fictionalised ones. They had the great courage to share with us, with the camera, some of the most vulnerable areas of their intimate lives. We worked with a fusion of personal stories and fictional elements, exploring procedures such as: meetings between real characters and quasi-fictional ones, family constellations, video diaries, re-enactments of memories and dreams, staging reality etc. We created a sort of ‘laboratory’ in which fiction often functioned as a safe space, a protective structure that brought us together and allowed us to safely explore sensitive areas, with an authenticity we may have not otherwise accessed through the traditional approaches of documentary or fiction.”

When I was 20 I thought I knew everything about intimacy, how relationships work, about eroticism, beauty, body

Pintilie’s thorough and fascinating process has also attracted such people as Seani Love, the 2015 recipient of the UK’s “Best Sex Worker of the Year”, who provides a mixture of sexual services, BDSM, tantra and Jungian psychotherapy, and Hanna Hoffmann, a Leipzig-based transgender real estate agent and activist for the rights of sex workers and sexual minorities. Together, they experience various degrees of catharsis.

“Each of the protagonists goes through a series of transformative encounters,” says the director. “For Laura, the key meetings are with the two escorts, Hanna Hoffmann and Seani Love. Sex work is another aspect regarding which I have changed my perspective. I discovered the complex and often therapeutic forms of personal exploration that sexual services can take. And that people have many motivations to practice sex work, other than just the financial one. Hanna’s story, for instance, is highly relevant in terms of this process of searching for inner freedom.”

Centre stage

Laura takes centre stage in the film, but Pintilie is very much present, often visibly, only just obscured by the camera. For all the kink explored within the film (a scene in a club featuring a bondage artist is particularly eye-opening), the film-maker’s straightforward thesis unifies the project’s many disparate strands and characters.

“It started from the premise – which I’m also mentioning at one point in the film – that when I was 20 I thought I knew everything about intimacy, how relationships work, about eroticism, beauty, body,” she says. “Today, after years of trials and tribulations, all those ideas, which used to be so clear back then, seem to have lost their definition and grown more complex and unsettlingly contradictory. We are very resistant to labels such as ‘documentary’, ‘fiction’, ‘experimental’. Touch Me Not does not fit into any of these categories, it is a ‘strange animal’, as Tómas says, existing on the fluid border between reality and fiction. Before everything, it is a research film, a dialogue film which invites you, the viewer, to question your own preconceived ideas about intimacy, sexuality, body.”

Touch Me Not is in cinemas October 19th

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