Adina Pintilie’s Golden Bear winner comprises superficial images of unsimulated sex and people with disabilities.
The camera slowly slides down what appears to be a person’s body, though it is hard to tell which part. Hair begins to appear and suddenly, the screen is filled up with the image of a man’s flaccid member. The camera doesn’t stop to contemplate this spectacle and continues its quiet movement, but its casual attitude feels forced, the ‘confrontation’ clear for all to see.
Thus opens Adina Pintilie’s Golden Bear-winning Touch Me Not. This sequence neatly encapsulates what the film is about — touch, bodies — but also the slightly disturbing, reactionary stance it adopts towards the subject. It is an ominous warning of things to come.
This is the first of many occurrences where Pintilie presents completely innocuous shots of various body parts, sexual activities and — more troublingly — people with various types of disability, as though there were something inherently confrontational or defiant about showing them on screen. One would assume that a director premiering their film in competition at the Berlin Film Festival would have already seen enough sex and people with disabilities on-screen for any taboo around these topics to be completely destroyed. Not so for Pintilie.
Her fashionably loose and elliptical film is broadly built around the experiences of Laura (Laura Benson), a woman in her fifties who struggles with intimacy. The naked man we see in the opening sequence is paid to masturbate in front of her, without her ever touching him, and it is heavily implied — through her conversations with various counsellors and sex workers — that Laura is single “at her age” because of this fear of physical closeness, and not by choice. It should be clear by now that this is not the feminist prize winner we might have wished for.
Certain good intentions are undeniable, since the film deliberately centres on an older woman fighting her own taboos, realising that there is nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘weird’ about touch, S&M and sex. This would indeed be admirable, were it not for the shallow, pseudo-intellectual way in which the film approaches its subject, its characters, and by implication, its audience.
Structured around scripted, fictional conversations designed to look and sound like real-life therapy sessions, complete with hushed tones and teary confessions, the film attempts to co-opt the emotional power of real-life therapy without caring about what is actually being said. It’s an ineffectual shortcut to emotional truth that is baffling in its audacity and superficiality.
Only a casual relationship to reality could explain being moved in equal measure by a fake therapy session and a real one. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that Pintilie offers us another toxic instance of a director “blurring the liminal boundary between fiction and reality,” with the disastrous moral and aesthetic consequences this approach so often leads to.
Christian Bayerlein, an interview subject with a spinal disability, is shown on numerous occasions discussing his genuinely interesting experience and philosophy with a fake hospital patient. This model-looking man, played by actor Tómas Lemarquisan, is of course the man Laura winds up eventually having sex with. Meanwhile, Christian and the other people with more visible disabilities remain firmly at the periphery of the film, their purpose seeming to be to help the main characters on their own fictional search for peace of mind.
The shallowness and insensitivity of Touch Me Not appears less mysterious when Pintilie appears in the film, playing a director like herself, for no good reason. She offers no real insight either into her own psychology – there is vague sub-Freudian chat of a distressing experience with her mother, but what of it? – or into the nature of her filmmaking. She has simply broken the fourth wall in an already-fictionalised context, without giving us a reason why or an explanation of her process.
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