It’s ironic that Adina Pintilie’s “Touch Me Not” was received as something of a provocation when it premiered at (and won) the 2018 Berlinale, because for all of its nudity and kink — its unashamed erections and BDSM — this beguiling film is defined by an almost childlike innocence. Of course, almost and childlike are the critical words, there; this is a movie that opens with a middle-aged woman paying a male prostitute to masturbate in her sheets so that she can sniff them after he leaves, so please don’t think that IndieWire is suggesting you take your kids.
Both clinical and radically humane, inscrutable and beautifully straightforward, scripted and unimpeachably real, “Touch Me Not” is a bold treatise about the strange (and often estranged) relationship humans have with their own bodies. Approaching the subject with the antiseptic detachment of a scientist and the warmth of a healer — often at the same time — Pintilie makes the case that many of us have become prisoners in shells of flesh, isolated from ourselves and each other by shame or trauma or some tragic combination of the two.
And she’s not having it. One of her subject/characters, a quadriplegic man, puts it this way: “The body is a gift, and life is a journey to experience that gift.” Coming from him, that’s a very hard point to argue. And yet, there’s a vast canyon between appreciating (or awing at) his belief and meaningfully internalizing it for yourself, and it’s there that Pintilie’s protagonist is stuck. The film itself is stuck there beside her.
Laura (Laura Benson) is a middle-aged English woman with some serious intimacy issues. Even the slightest touch reflexively causes her to fight back, and prolonged contact with another human being triggers shrieks of primal anguish. It’s cryptically inferred that Laura’s dying father may be responsible for her neuroses — an enervating subplot in a film that’s already bloated with empty air — but the source isn’t as important to Pintilie as the symptoms. We understand that Laura is suffering from this sensitivity, and that she’s eager to cure herself of it. “Touch Me Not” is effectively the strange course of treatment that Pintilie has prescribed for her.
A natural extension of her documentary background, the director’s first “narrative” feature is a self-reflexive exercise that finds a number of different ways to contextualize Laura’s body in the greater scheme of things. Laura’s scenes of sexual stagnation are shot with conventional art house austerity, the almost complete lack of color locating her in a sexless purgatory in which everything is sapped dry of its erotic value. “Touch Me Not” is awful short on levity, but its environments are so sterile that it’s funny (if only in a pitiful way) to watch Laura stick her face into her soiled bedding — she lives in a world without smell, or taste, or any of the senses that might trigger some kind of physical response.
These moments feel scripted, at least on her end. The sex workers she invites into her lifeless apartment are comparatively unrestrained, as if Pintilie instructed them to improvise with her protagonist as though she were just another client. They’re playing themselves, while Benson seems to be playing some version of herself (if that). Transgender prostitute Hanna Hoffman is by far the film’s warmest presence, a pot-bellied Brahms fanatic who’s as comfortable with her body as Laura is constrained. Touch therapist Seani Love seems more interested in expressing his own kinks than he is in discovering Laura’s. “I have a fetish for tears,” he announces, while inviting his client to scream at him.
The film’s delicate sense of reality is further disturbed when Pintilie appears as a disembodied face on a monitor, interviewing her protagonist through an Interrotron-like camera rig. In a movie about bodies, the director doesn’t have one. She speaks to Laura as though interviewing a real person (not a character), and the uncertain distinction between the two is greatly exaggerated by the film’s third mode, in which Laura visits a sexual therapy workshop of some kind at a local hospital. There, seemingly uninvited, she witnesses people who have even more pronounced difficulties with their bodies. Or people who appear to, anyway.
We meet Tómas Lemarquis, a recognizable Icelandic actor (“Nói Albéinoí,” “Blade Runner 2049”) whose complete hairlessness is the result of Alopecia universalis. He strikes up a simpatico friendship with Christian Bayerlein, a severely deformed man with spinal muscular atrophy who has a special love for his penis because it’s the only part of his body that still works — and, as he’s quick to point out, because it’s not proportional to his body’s shrunken size. Later, we’ll see that penis in action, the coup de grace of Pintilie’s desperate bid to disabuse us from our collective preconceptions of good bodies and bad bodies.
“Touch Me Not” is far too compassionate for any of this to feel exploitative, though the inarguable reality of Christian’s condition is rather shamelessly used to endow hyper-performative sequences with a documentary vibe. The most striking example of this is a protracted tour through an underground BDSM club, motivated by a pointless subplot in which Tómas stalks an ex-girlfriend. Unsubtly suggesting that society is choked by moral norms — that we are all made to feel like a brain being carried around in a body — Pintilie focuses her camera on all sorts of floggings and fetish play, clumsily toeing the line between purity and prurience.
We’re not necessarily meant to be turned on by any of this (an agonizing strobe light sometimes makes it hard to even see it), but the earnestness of the film’s agenda is at odds with the exaggerated horseplay. In a vacuum, this could be an interesting segment on HBO’s “Real Sex,” but in the context of Laura’s psychosexual journey, it’s a faintly ridiculous fix. It’s silly here, where it might not be in real life, Pintilie’s stone-faced ethnography par for the course in an endlessly self-serious movie about how we all take sex too seriously.
As Seani teaches: “You can’t say ‘yes’ to something if you can’t say ‘no’ to something,” arguing that “no” shuts us down when it should be setting us free. “Touch Me Not” desperately wants us to be in better communication with our bodies, the film’s hybrid style inviting its characters to break the fourth wall and speak to us directly. We never forget the camera is there, and if Pintilie’s characters can so openly reveal themselves to the world, perhaps we can find the strength to privately confront ourselves.
And yet, the complexity of the film’s form only underlines the simplicity of its thesis, a fragmented portrait of self-discovery shriveling into an empty bid for self-help. It’s one thing to believe in all of this beauty, it’s quite another to internalize it. By the end of this long-winded odyssey, Laura’s problem is a lot clearer than any of the solutions Pintilie lays out for her. “Touch Me Not” points towards all manner of holistic truths, but leaves them all frustratingly out of reach.
“Touch Me Not” premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.