An unexpected winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Romanian director Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not is an eye-opening look at human sexuality and intimacy that’s not quite documentary, not quite fiction in its incorporation of recognisable actors alongside non-professional stars sharing stories and acts of intimacy. Pintilie also ‘stars’ in the film herself as a director reflecting on the drama unfolding, lending proceedings the feel of a therapy session. (Read our review of the movie here.)
With the film now available exclusively on MUBI in the UK after a brief theatrical run, we speak to Pintilie and actors Laura Benson (Dangerous Liaisons, I Want to Go Home) and Tómas Lemarquis (Blade Runner 2049, Nói Albinói, Snowpiercer) about the unique project, how it changed their own views on intimacy, achieving trust, and what winning the Golden Bear means to them.
How would you describe Touch Me Not, in your own words?
Laura Benson: I’d say it’s a very special film.
Tómas Lemarquis: A special film for special people.
Adina Pintilie: Every person is special.
Tómas Lemarquis: Exactly.
Adina Pintilie: I think, in general, this film is questioning labels and certitudes and things that we think we know. So, in the same sense, it’s also questioning what cinema can be, in a way. If I am to describe this film, it’s neither fiction nor documentary, nor experimental film. I think the most accurate way to describe it is that it’s a research film. A process film which is a fusion: a fusion of reality, of personal material and the fictional elements of staged elements
Tómas Lemarquis: It’s a cinema experience.
Adina Pintilie: And also, if you go from the research, it’s also this aspect of sharing the research with the viewer and this aspect of dialogue. This is also a film dialogue which is inviting the viewer to enter into a conversation with the film and also with themselves.
Laura Benson: It’s also a visual experience.
Tómas Lemarquis: You’re an active spectator. You are not just watching a story from far away. You are getting involved, being part of this experiment.
Laura Benson: Drawn into it.
Adina Pintilie: Participative cinema.
Laura Benson: It’s not a film that you can escape. You don’t go into la la land and fantasy land. It’s not at all fantasy land.
Adina Pintilie: Basically, it’s inviting you in the conversation, inviting you in the research, to be part of this personal research as a viewer.
What drew each of you to the project in the first place?
Laura Benson: I’d say it’s about qualitative communication of where it puts you, which made me feel that I could work with [Pintilie] in what she was proposing to work on. And I liked a film she made called Don’t Get Me Wrong, that made me trust her way of looking at things; the kind of poetic outlook on things and a certain quality of depth. I liked what I saw. Not only what I felt, but what I saw.
Tómas Lemarquis: I like to get rid of as many fears and prejudices as possible, and this film project offered me both. It was very scary to do it.
Laura Benson: Did you feel that from the beginning?
Tómas Lemarquis: Yeah, because I saw it was going to be pushing my boundaries and going into areas where I would be uncomfortable. I was also drawn into taking the risk to push me to go there, and to get rid of prejudices, also. Preconceived ideas that were smashed down, so that was a positive.
Adina Pintilie: I think this was the beauty of the whole process, because it was not like a casting where you choose from options of actors. It was more like searching for like-minded people and close collaborators that would be interested in the same process of self-exploration. I think all of you had this quality from the very beginning. You had it, even if you don’t admit it.
Laura Benson: I didn’t know. That’s why I asked Tómas. He said he was aware, and I threw myself into it without being as aware of what was going to be asked from me as Tomas was.
Adina Pintilie: He was not aware of what he was going to be asked, but he knew it was going to be difficult. Challenging, let’s say.
Laura Benson: For me, every time it’s challenging, so I didn’t know in what particular areas it would be challenging.
Adina Pintilie: I think all the collaborators, all the participants of this film… this film is a co-creation of a group of wonderful human beings and each of them has this quality… first of all, not only for this film, I think all of us, we have this curiosity for exploration and this need for growth and for self-development and for pushing our own limits. Even if this is always very scary and full of doubts. But it’s also rewarding, it’s therapeutic. You grow into this process of discovery.
You’ve touched on this a little, but how did you work with the performers to reach this level of trust?
Adina Pintilie: I wouldn’t call them performers. Would you call them performers?
Tómas Lemarquis: In a way. If you’re in front of a camera, it’s a performance.
Adina Pintilie: As much as our daily life is a performative activity. In that sense, being is performative.
Tómas Lemarquis: But you’re doing it for an audience, which is not always the case in daily life. The relationship with the audience puts an extra layer of…
Adina Pintilie: Performativity?
Tómas Lemarquis: Yeah, and pressure, as well.
Laura Benson: Sometimes when you’re hired to do something, in the sense of performance, I know that I’m going to dare, sometimes, to do things more because that’s what’s asked of me; that was a contract which I can’t run away from. So, the performance aspect heightens the fact that you push yourself into spaces which you might not do in your everyday life.
Tómas Lemarquis: The thing that made me trust Adina so much, apart from being a nice person with a good energy, is that it was not like… normally, on normal films, you have a director and a very strict hierarchy. The director on top of the pyramid, the director is in command. It was totally Adina’s vision; it’s her project, her baby, but then, in the process, it’s a co-creation, in the sense that there is not an absolute script. We are creating it together, and Adina was also in the process herself. So, in that sense, she put herself in danger so we were all putting ourselves in danger. That she showed so much vulnerability was also an invitation for us to probe vulnerability. If she had just been sitting in her chair, looking down, it would be a different kind of dynamic between us, but instead we were all in the same shit.
Laura Benson: It was like you weren’t alone in throwing yourself into it.
Adina Pintilie: Also, the beauty of this kind of process where you work with a mix of personal material and fictionalised elements is that in a strange way, it allows you much more freedom in exploring places than a regular documentary or a regular fiction film, because when you are in a fiction, you are the prisoner of the written character. You are supposed to be a certain way. Of course, the whole construction of a character is a complex thing, but you have a written structure and then plans, let’s say. You know in advance. And then, in a documentary, you are again a prisoner, but of your daily persona. You kind of feel obliged and blocked by the way you are perceived normally in your daily interactions. Whereas this kind of fusion place functioned like a safety net, because it allowed us to go places where we may have never dared to go, things we would have never dare to explore; maybe fantasies of dreams or memories, but nobody needed to know where they came from. Nobody needs to actually know what is a dream, what is a memory, what is just imagination. So, in that sense, you feel safer and you feel freer to be things that you maybe wouldn’t have dared to be, or wouldn’t have dared to face about yourself.
Have your own views on intimacy changed?
Tómas Lemarquis: Ladies first.
Laura Benson: [laughs] I’d say one thing that’s changed is I discovered other people’s views on intimacy. It broadened my point of view and made me realise that there isn’t just one way. Whereas, I’ve often felt quite inadequate, so it made me think there are a million ways that people deal with intimacy, because I don’t think a lot of people find it easy. It made me aware that I’m not alone in the questions brought up.
Tómas Lemarquis: I think it’s helped me to show more vulnerability, which is an invitation to more intimacy because then you’re showing more of just who you are. It’s easier to connect when there are less walls between people. And also, daring to work more, being honest, [getting] your thoughts out. All those are things that, with honesty, connect and create intimacy.
Laura Benson: And I think it also makes it a less taboo subject. Hearing and meeting so many people around the same subject made it a bit more normal. A bit less secretive.
Adina Pintilie: This was maybe one of the main, let’s say, realisations of this process because as I’m also saying [onscreen] in the film, it started from this premise that I thought I know how things go: you have family or society or education, it’s implementing some ideas about how relationships should be, what beauty is, how desire functions. You have all these expectations, and then when you go out in the crazy world in real life and you realise that, actually, things are not happening according to those expectations, you risk feeling that you don’t fit; that something is wrong with you, that you need to be repaired. Whereas, that’s not at all the case. People can experience intimacy in so many different ways than the so-called normative ones. The norm is different according to different cultures. But it develops a sort of self-understanding and self-acceptance and acceptance of the other person in their differences. This was a perceptive transformation that happened along the process. You can see how beautiful some bodies can be, even if they don’t correspond at all to the Greek idea of beauty, or how relationships can function in a very deep and humane way, but not at all in the way that you would expect they function. Reality is very different than our normative fictions because I consider normal as a sort of fiction in a way, or at least it’s a very limited view on certain things.
What was the greatest challenge in getting this film finished over the seven years you put into it?
Adina Pintilie: Everything! There was the challenge of the topic. Intimacy and our sexuality, our bodies, are such an important part of our lives, but it’s tough to face this area. It’s tough to talk about, it’s tough to explore. So, there was this taboo area of exploration, but another challenge was the challenge of the language; finding the right language to share this kind of research with the viewer, because as the film is questioning our preconceived ideas about intimacy, it’s also questioning preconceived ideas and expectations about cinema as a language. It probably felt for many financiers and for many possible partners like something that they couldn’t predict or they couldn’t count on necessarily as something which will not go by the norms, so therefore unsafe and frightening. Therefore, it went slower. But this also made it a very particular and rich and nourishing journey for all of us.
What did winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival mean for you and the film?
Adina Pintilie: [to the actors] What did it mean for you? You’ve never talked about that.
Tómas Lemarquis: It’s always a dream for any actor to experience this. I’m always after experience. I want as many different experiences as possible and this is definitely one experience I wanted to have in my life as an actor. And it’s great. I’m not a sports person, but if I ever watch sports, I’m with the underdog. And it’s the same for this kind of situation. The underdogs win this and it’s like… [does a celebratory fist movement and then raises a middle finger]
Adina Pintilie: [to us] How are you going to put that in the interview? With an emoticon?
I’m just writing ‘middle finger’.
[They all laugh]
Laura Benson: Right hand.
Adina Pintilie: It’s amazing in that the film is about being seen and who you really are, with all these risks. And this kind of confirmation that came from [getting into] Berlinale and then from the juries was about being seen, being accepted and recognised, actually loving the way you really are. We all took a lot of risks in the process of really going to those places. It’s about being seen as who you are and, also, it’s a confirmation that you really need to follow your inner voice. It doesn’t matter what’s going to go out, but people say it’s very important to follow what you feel, what you really think it’s important for you and essential to say in the way you feel like saying it. It’s very much about personal freedom, the project. And I think that the award was a really good, important encouragement for all of us.
Tómas Lemarquis: This award is an incredible gift for this film because it’s not an easy film. And it was giving incredible support because it was like a hot pancake and everyone was afraid to touch it. Who would dare to go there? And then there’s someone who’s brave enough to take the pancake and eat it.
Adina Pintilie: And then it went wonderful in terms of the whole story of the distribution of the film and how it goes in cinemas and in festivals. It’s received with so much openness and with strong emotional reactions from everybody. Most of the people, in any case. It’s true that there are mixed reactions, but there are reactions that are strong emotional reactions everywhere in the world.
Laura Benson: It’s not tepid!
Adina Pintilie: It’s also a confirmation that this kind of dialogue that the film proposes is necessary nowadays. For me, it was a very interesting experience to understand that sometimes the film industry, our film industry, can tend to underestimate the intelligence, the emotional intelligence of viewers. In the beginning, there was resistance to take the film for the commercial circuit and to take it to cinemas with the distribution of the film. The people who really had the courage to do it and the sales agent that we have on board did an amazing job. They are not at all disappointed. The film is going even beyond their expectations.
Tómas Lemarquis: They’re glad they touched the pancake.
Touch Me Not is available now on MUBI UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.