'Touch Me Not': Film Review | Berlin 2018

Touch Me Not Still 1- Berlin International Film Festival - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A relentlessly immersive tour de force.

Adina Pintilie’s first feature is an eye-opening look at human sexuality on the uncertain edge of fiction and non-fiction.

There’s no room for prudes in the illuminating film Touch Me Not (Nu ma atinge-ma), where characters grapple with the pleasures and pains of their naked bodies and how they relate to them. This first feature by young Romanian writer-director Adina Pintilie, who also appears as herself in the film, is striking for its intelligence, self-assurance and originality. Though not every moment is fascinating to watch, most moments are, and adult audiences should find its frank presentation of the diversity of intimacy thought-provoking and possibly therapeutic. Its subject will make it a love-it-or-leave-it title for festival and art houses.

The film is beautifully crafted with sure-handed sophistication that should make it an award contender in Berlin competition, where it bowed. Each scene is set in a space neutralized by the whiteness of Adrian Cristea’s calming sets, some of them appearing to be digitally retouched. Just the opposite effect is achieved by the jarring modern soundtrack that pops up for brief intervals in the most unexpected places, destroying the illusion of watching a documentary.

Deliberately refusing to position itself as fiction or non-fiction, the pic walks an ambiguous tightrope made more unsettling by its charged sexual content. It’s hard to say who of the characters is an actor and who isn’t, so realistic are the performances. But one thing is certain. As people explore their bodies onscreen, they aren’t alone. Pintilie’s cameras are there, gently, respectfully invading the most private spheres of sexual response; sometimes disappearing during on-camera dramas, sometimes outed in plain sight, so we remember there is a mechanical eye watching people undress and touch themselves and each other. At certain times, Pintilie’s own tired, knowing face appears in a monitor like the Wizard of Oz, posing weighted questions to the person on the other side of the lens.  

Actually, most of the main players are stage actors, though so skillful they appear to be non-pros. Laura Benson plays Laura, a woman somewhere around 50 who has issues with trust and safety in intimate encounters. In the first scene, she has hired a well-built, tattooed call boy of few words, and sits in a chair watching him shower and masturbate. The camera does a slow pan over his thighs, groin and stomach — it’s just about the only “perfect” body in the film — and one wonders why Laura isn’t participating.

The reason emerges later as she stiffly interacts with two remarkable sex therapists — who knew such people existed? The first is the delightful Hannah Hofmann, a warm, reassuring transsexual who gently chats to Laura about Brahms before showing off her imperfect body during a homemade peep show. There’s nothing bad about sexuality, she coaches Laura.

The other is the equally personable, bearded Seani Love, a skilled body worker and sex healer who proposes everything from cuddling to punching to bring out the buried anger that prevents Laura from enjoying her body. (Her dying father, whom she visits several times in a sterile clinic, probably has a lot to do with her problem.) Laura shows painful honesty and desperation in these bizarre encounters, which are both fascinating and hard to watch.

In a clinical setting, again against an abstract white background, a psychologist leads a group of patients and caregivers in a partnering exercise in which they are instructed to slowly touch the other’s face. Tomas Lemarquis (a theater actor, for the record) gingerly feels the narrow face of Christian Bayerlein, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). It’s soon clear that Christian is an exceptionally intelligent person, who reasons that his “body is a gift and life is a journey to experience that gift.” His open-minded attitude began when he discovered the pleasures of sexuality; before that he felt he was a brain being carried around without a body.

Tomas seems to benefit most from their therapy sessions. He has a lost love (Bulgarian actress Irmena Chichikova) that he follows to a surreal sex club, where he watches her star in a dazzling bondage scene. And who should he find in a corner, happily getting it on, but Christian and his girlfriend (Grit Uhlemann), whom Tomas has seen in the clinic and always assumed was just his caregiver. Just like Tomas, the audience is suddenly forced to change its whole perspective on the presumed limits imposed by a severe disability like Christian’s.

As fascinating and original as Pintilie’s approach to recounting intimacy is, it never turns voyeuristic, even while it abounds in full-frontal nudity. Where other directors would linger, she reveals without judging and moves the camera away. Breasts and genitals are seen, but not examined. When Laura allows herself to dance wildly and freely as nature made her, she modestly turns her back to the camera, and that is okay, too.

Ironically, amid all the physicality, the one false note is sounded by the filmmaker herself. She never takes anything off, but instead launches into a long, intellectually mediated story about her relationship to her mother and its possible repercussions on her sexuality. It reminds the viewer how boring it can be to talk about sex.

The film is superbly shot with pristine post-modern taste by George Chiper-Lillemark and beautifully edited by Pintilie.

Production companies: Manekino Film, Rohfilm Productions, Agitprop, Pink, Les Films de l’Etranger
Cast: Laura Benson, Tomas Lemarquis, Christian Bayerlein, Grit Uhlemann, Adina Pintilie, Hanna Hofmann, Seani Love, Irmena Chichikova, Rainer Steffen, Georgi Naldzhev, Dirk Lange, Annett Sawallisch
Director-screenwriter-editor: Adina Pintilie
Producers: Bianca Oana, Philippe Avril, Adina Pintilie
Director of photography: George Chiper-Lillemark
Production designer: Adrian Cristea
Costume designer: Maria Pitea
Music: Einsturzende Neubauten, Ivo Paunov
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Doc & Film International

125 minutes