LFF 2018: Touch Me Not Review
What is the purpose of a film? Some might say to be enjoyed, others might say to gain insight into a different life or way of viewing the world. Perhaps it is to portray events and emotions in such a way that it elicits a reaction from the viewer - good or bad.
Touch Me Not does not provide insight into the above question, but its existence has been generating a whole spectrum of discussion about what it is a film should really do, or be. Adina Pintilie’s first feature film is a quasi-documentary exploration into intimacy, sexuality and body confidence. At least, these are the themes the film draws upon. Pintilie explores them through several methods. The first is her own voiceover describing her own fears about intimacy and anxieties about the project. The second is through a cast of actors - including protagonist Laura (Laura Benson), Christian (Christian Bayerlein), Hanna (Hanna Hofmann) and Tomas (Tomas Lemarquis) - all from a variety of professional and non-professional backgrounds.
The film itself has had mixed reviews, and it’s easy to see why. It is not conventional, nor is it an easy watch. There are complex ideas within the film, some of which are represented well and others of which feel hidden under layers and layers of bizarre dialogue and uncomfortable scenes.
There are a few really strong moments where Pintilie’s vision and explorations are pulled to the surface. Laura herself is a strong character, played with sharp precision by Laura Benson, and her presence in the film is grounding for audiences used to a more consistent and conventional narrative structure. Laura is on a journey of her own to discover how to be physically intimate with other people and she meets several on the way. One of these is Hanna, who provides some much needed humour into both Laura’s life and the film itself. Hanna is transgender and a sex worker, and explains in frank and often humorous detail to Laura her relationship to her body, and coming out as trans at the age of 50. Sex, intimacy, bodies and nudity can all be incredibly funny and it takes Hanna’s small but necessary presence in the film to remind us of that.
The portrayal of disability and sex is something so rarely given a platform, and Touch Me Not goes a long way to address this. One of the film’s main focusses is Christian who lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He talks at length about the parts of his body that he likes, and the ways in which conversations around differently abled people frequently dismisses them as non sexual beings. His voice is an essential aspect of the film and succeeds in pushing past the audiences preexisting perceptions of disability and sexuality.
Other elements, however, feel wildly unnecessary and seem to have been included to shock the viewer rather than to try and advance the conversation on intimacy. In addition to its opening shot of an extreme close-up of a penis, there are frequent sequences of sex, masturbation and nudity throughout which often feel very contrived. A strobe-lit sequence in a BDSM club is one of these - while cinematically interesting it doesn’t add anything to the existing dialogue on sex other than, ‘well isn’t this wild?’ It’s also the only scene (surprisingly) which feels exploitative - showing shocking images instead of exploring those relationships or the psychology behind the fetishes.
The film also suffers from having Pintilie appear within it - both as a voiceover and on camera opposite Laura. Touch Me Not is not clearly defined as either fiction or documentary, and Pintilie’s own journey as the filmmaker exploring the themes feels like a very different film to the journey of Laura and Tomas, or even to the more traditional documentary style observations of Cristian and Grit. There are two, or perhaps even three, separate films within Touch Me Not and they don’t really work together. Pintilie’s narration (of sorts) doesn’t really add anything to the existing storylines, other than to confuse the viewer.
Locations of white walled apartments, hospital corridors and bleak exteriors give the film an incredibly clinical and cold look - another element which stands in contrast to the ideas about intimacy and closeness. These visuals are perhaps to represent Laura’s struggle to be intimate and her desire for closeness but the result makes the film appear quite washed out. It does, however, make the characters stand out - their faces against the neutral and impersonal backgrounds means that we focus closer on their faces and the minutiae of their expressions.
Even with all its rough edges, Touch Me Not is still a compelling watch. There are no comparisons - it’s a truly unique experiment. It will frustrate many viewers, and even those who enjoy it will almost certainly find it a very difficult watch. Yet, there’s a reason why it won the Golden Bear prize at Berlin Film Festival this year. If you can make it to the end, and I advise that you at least try to, its ending is not only satisfying but rewarding too.