A young Romanian woman’s film about the endless types of intimate behaviors and sexualities, divided audiences all around the world; “repulsion”, “admiration”, “curiosity”, “understanding” being key words in describing the feelings it has stirred.
The 2 hours long movie follows the director documenting chapters in the sex lives of three people: a middle-aged woman repulsed by touch, who tries to find other means of sexual pleasure and come to terms with the cause of her repulsion; a physically-impaired man, who is still capable of performing sexually despite his disabilities and finally, a young man diagnosed with alopecia who struggles with his body image and his break-up.
The director of this movie, Adina Pintilie, is an up-and-coming artist in the Romanian film industry, Touch me not being her first feature film. Her other work includes documentaries such as: Nu te supăra, dar… (Don’t Get Me Wrong) and Balastiera #186 (Sandpit #186), which somewhat explain her presence as a documentary filmmaker specifically, in the movie. Her work as a director for this movie was a thorough one, characterized by in-depth research, both in terms of understanding the wide spectrum of sexuality, as well as in the search of the right cast. The main actors are Laura Benson, Tomas Lemarquis, Christian Bayerlein and of course, Adina Pintilie herself. Other names include Hanna Hofmann and Seani Love, who professes as a sex worker, both in the movie and in real life.
Touch me not or Nu mă atinge-mă (original title) was released in Romania on the 30th of May 2018 at the Transylvania International Film Festival, where it had won The Special Prize in the “Romanian Film Days” category. The first showing of the movie was on the 22nd of February 2018 at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it was Awarded the Best First Feature Award and the Golden Berlin Bear Award for Best Film. The win at the Berlinale was widely debated, some critics saying the movie was undeserving and the controversy around it not enough to make it worthy. The response on social media, as I remember it, was also scattered with comments that stated the film was an exaggeration, pretentious and sexually graphic & diverse just for the sake of it. But in an age where pornography can be so easily accessed, why does it bother us so much more when someone tries to present genitalia, fetishes, desires, bodies of different kinds in a more realistic way, in the way we all experience them, ourselves, on a daily basis. After all, what this movie tries to convey is that the path to being sexually fulfilled and comfortable in intimacy is different for everyone, but that it all stands in how we perceive and accept ourselves, regardless of our body type, gender or sexual orientation.
From the beginning, the director sets the tone of the movie by presenting extreme close-ups of skin, hair, birthmarks; and introduces herself as an observer, spectator, researcher. The plot of the movie is indistinct, seeing as it lacks in action and mainly focuses on monologues and conversations between people, the only dynamic scenes being the ones where the characters engage in sexual activities. Starting off with Laura, we follow her as she employs the services of different types of sex workers, in her attempt to get rid of the barriers she has set over her body. After her, we move on to Tomas and Christian, that both participate in a touch-based form of therapy. Tomas’ struggle with intimacy is centered around his disease, alopecia, that he’s had since he was a young teen and that affects his perception of his body and his desirability. Throughout the movie he can be seen dealing with his break-up; his ex-girlfriend’s character also being a way through which the director introduces the concepts of sex clubs and BDSM. The final main character, Christian, is a man with multiple physical impairments that make him unable to live without aid. Nonetheless, he is articulate, has a clear understanding of how his condition affects his sex life and talks candidly about his desires and about his girlfriend.
Portraying on camera the sex lives of disabled people or of transgender/non-binary people is something that many filmmakers shy away from. Representation is important, as long it is not used as a tool to become relevant or controversial, which I don’t believe is the case for this movie. Seeing Touch me not in a cinema, I could only think about what the other 800 viewers in the room felt upon watching people that don’t conform to the average body types engage in sex acts. Most people probably feel uncomfortable watching nudity on screen in general, even more so when the specific type of body they are seeing is something they aren’t used to. Not to mention, when the person that possesses this kind of body accepts it and talks about it with confidence. Here I am referring to the characters of Christian and Hanna.
When it comes to the cinematography, the movie is mostly composed of still shots, set in cold colored environments that give off a clinical, medicinal, Freudian atmosphere. The simplicity of the sets and of the costumes reinforce the idea of realism, the minimalism and the shots of the city place the movie in the now, in the modern times. The writing is fluid and flowing, but some lines and conversations I did find boring and pretentious and although the director tries to portray the awkwardness and struggles of intimacy and sexuality with realism sometimes the characters spoke in what I felt was a very forced manner.
What had made me feel the most uncomfortable while watching this movie, more so than any display of nudity, was the music. There are two recurring sound fragments that are being played out during different moments in the movie that make you you feel like you are being watched, just like the characters are. The music is the work of Einstürzende Neubauten, a German industrial band, whose harsh sound fits perfectly with the unconventional tone of the film. Although unsettling, these sounds build up the tension and amplify the struggle the characters feel.
You could compare this movie with many others that deal with the issue of sexuality, but some similarities that strike out the most, I believe, can be found in the movie Shame by Steve McQueen: mostly cinematography wise, the color scheme, the motif of the rumpled bed sheets which can also represent sexual distress. Blue is the warmest color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, is another movie that can be compared to Touch me not, considering the reviews it had received at Cannes Film Festival after winning the Palm d’Or, many critics saying the film didn’t deserve to win such an important prize due to it’s graphic sex scenes. Love by Gaspard Noe and Nymphomaniac by Lars von Trier both dealt with the same issues. This could suggest that there is still a lot of rigidity and conservatorism in the film industry.
It is worth mentioning that Adina Pintilie also featured disabled people in one of her documentaries, called Don’t get me wrong, which suggests her desire of breaking the ableism present in most movies.
People could perceive this movie in many different ways. They could either be curious or uncomfortable with seeing transgender and disabled characters on screen, with seeing sex workers and people engaging in voyeuristic activities, but nonetheless they will have a reaction and they will think about what they have seen for a long time after they finish watching the movie.
Touch me not is a documentary-like movie that openly presents sides of sexuality and intimacy that aren’t usually talked about. This movie’s purpose is not to make people feel uncomfortable, but to create a discussion and get people to understand that the spectrum is wider than they think. In a country that has the highest rates of child & teen pregnancies, no sexual education in schools, laws not well defined in cases of sexual assault and in a country where sex is still taboo, where the thought of disabled people having sex is impossible, where people from the LGBT+ community aren’t acknowledged or accepted, a movie like this is a breath of fresh air.
Overall, Adina Pintilie’s Touch me not is an important movie and a big step for Romanian cinematography. Aesthetically pleasant, this movie gives hope to people that struggle with their sexuality and feelings.