One of the characters in Touch Me Not, a certain quadriplegic Christian Bayerlein, remarks how he used to feel “like a brain being carried around without any body”. That was until he discovered the pleasures of sexuality. Even with his disability, he believes that his body is a gift and that life is a journey to experience that gift. Christian’s philosophy forms the very core of Adina Pintilie’s latest feature, his openness and his ability to be comfortable in his own skin being the very antithesis of our two protagonists Laura and Tomas – the former being averse to physical intimacy despite craving for it, and the latter being unable to emotionally open up to another human. They are so overly protective of their feelings that their body serves little purpose other than simply being a protective shell, a casing for their brain and consequentially they are bereft of the love and warmth that they see others enjoying.
It is the quest for real human intimacy that becomes the focal point of Adina’s evocative experiment in documenting the various emotional and sexual journeys of her characters, as they work towards overcoming their own fears, prejudices and preconceived notions regarding the human body and soul.
Structured and presented in a manner so as to blur the lines between fiction and documentary, the film is reminiscent of the seminal docufictions made by Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf in their quest to strip down façades within cinema. The director herself appears at the very beginning with a brief monologue, structured as a question, which establishes that the film will play out more like an exploration into the unknown, rather than depicting a fully-scripted reality. We are often shown the very cameras that are recording the events before us, completely doing away with any fourth wall. There are no fictional characters in Touch Me Not so to speak, and all actors and actresses assume their real names within the film, an indication that the characters we are about to see on-screen might simply be extensions of the people portraying them.
We are first introduced to Laura, a woman in her 50s, who is seemingly unable to derive any sexual pleasure out of her life, though not for lack of trying. She hires a number of escorts, hoping that they can help her feel something despite her inherent aversion to physical intimacy. The first of them, a tattooed young male, undresses and takes a bath before masturbating in Laura’s sheets. Laura watches everything from a distance, apparently content with observing him perform his “ritual” and sniffing the soiled bedcovers afterward. In between Laura tries to talk to him, without much success, and we are given the first glimpse of how desperate she really is for some genuine human connection. Another escort she contacts is a transsexual named Hanna Hofmann. Hanna is probably the most entertaining character of this little ensemble, chatting excitedly and expressing her passion for Brahms as she tries to get Laura to feel relaxed and free of insecurities that keep her from opening up sexually.
Laura also visits her ill bed-ridden father every now and then, in a white hospital building with a rather cold and sterile exterior. Inside that same building is a special section that catches Laura’s attention as she passes by, where she observes numerous differently-abled people who have come together for what seems like a support-group-meets-psychotherapy session. The people are feeling each other’s faces, discussing their thoughts with each other in an attempt to tackle deep-seated psychological issues through physical contact and stimulation. One particular man Tomas, suffering from Alopecia Totalis (a condition characterized by complete loss of hair) seems to catch Laura’s attention. Tomas has the quadriplegic Christian as his partner in that facility and it is revealed through their interaction that Tomas is severely introverted and faces real difficulty in opening up to people. It inspires him and triggers something very deep inside to see Christian embracing his disability and maintaining a positive and holistic view of life.
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In between her visits to the facility and her escorts, we see Laura discussing her feelings with the director Adina Pintilie, who appears on a screen in front of her as they converse almost like a psychiatrist and her patient would. Laura tells her about the sessions with her escorts and sometimes Adina reciprocates by laying bare some of her own innermost thoughts. In their quest for intimacy, both Tomas and Laura begin to realize that being direct and honest about their feelings is the key to connecting with fellow humans; instead of keeping their true emotions boarded up behind a veil of fake smiles and patronizing compliments. At one point Tomas remarks “we are all hiding behind many masks”, and as a result there’s this chronic dissociation that we experience with our own inner selves.
Touch Me Not comes off as a very topical film in its sensitive treatment of issues like alienation, objectification, social acceptance and identity crisis that plague modern society, in a battle against compartmentalization and a yearning for meaningful human relationships.
People like Tomas and Laura find it increasingly difficult to open themselves up to strangers and they realize this inherent push-pull for affection through forms of voyeurism, as can be seen with Laura watching her first escort masturbate on her bed. Touch Me Not traces their transformation from being cold and incapable of intimate relations to finding solace in each other’s arms, like two birds of the same feather. The voyeuristic theme recurs throughout, as Laura stalks Tomas who, in turn, stalks his ex-girlfriend into a nightclub where he stands and watches other people fulfilling their sexual fantasies. The nightclub exhibits to him the extremities to which certain people can go in order to feel something truly visceral in regards to their sexuality. Thus the concluding scene of Touch Me Not feels liberating when we see Laura dancing without inhibition, as she celebrates the joy of having found what she so desperately sought all along, and we see her completely transformed from her usual repressed and troubled self to that of a bird who’s only just learned to fly.
The title of the film evokes this unique predicament that the characters are trapped in – one where they fail to accept any gesture of intimacy, despite going to great lengths to obtain the same. The director brings out the coldness in the characters’ hearts through minimalist set design and austere color and lighting choices consisting mostly of pale blue hues, along with cinematography that establishes a constant distance between the camera and its subject. Pintilie portrays her subjects with great care and shows their vulnerability despite all their defense mechanisms, and part of the reason why the film is so effective is that it gets under the skin of its characters. By the end of its two-hour runtime, these humans in Touch Me Not feel like real people you’ve known your entire life, and you feel their loneliness and their joy down to your very bones.
Having said that, Touch Me Not will be a hard sell to plenty of viewers simply because it is so markedly different than anything out there. And if early reviews by critics are any indication, it will probably go on to become one of the most polarizing films of this decade. It dares to explore our deepest woes and worries in the most direct and honest manner, without beating around the bush or adorning the narrative with any ornamentation. We are made to feel the lack of warmth in these people’s lives and yearn for emotional closure just as much as them while being challenged all the time to re-evaluate and deepen our existing knowledge of human nature and relationships.
Touch Me Not was screened in the main competition section at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Golden Bear.
When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.