Director: Adina Pintilie
Cast: Laura Benson, Tomas Lemarquis
Watch Touch Me Not online in the UK: MUBI UK
The reaction to Romanian director Adina Pintilie’s Silver Bear-winning documentary has been divisive to say the least, with the Guardian clutching their pearls over its “worryingly crass” displays of nudity and jaunt to a European sex club, and Variety defiantly stating that anybody “shocked” is “simply not getting the point”. The way an individual will experience Touch Me Not depends very much on how comfortable they are with watching a film that so nakedly lays bare the workings of sex, self and intimacy – not just the pleasure that arises from it, but the difficult feelings that can block an individual from having access to that pleasure.
The film is expansive in its range of bodies, sexualities and human experiences, although its exploration of intimacy and self starts with 50-year-old Laura (Laura Benson as herself), an Englishwoman living in Germany who has a fear of being touched. It’s important to note that Laura isn’t a happy, self-identifying asexual or aromantic person, but someone who feels left out in the cold, an outsider looking in on a world of pleasure, intimacy and bodily autonomy, and wanting to be part of that world herself. We see her in a range of informative encounters with sex workers/therapists (aren’t all autonomous sex workers to some degree?) to explore her anger and resentment that is blocking her from reaching her goal.
Particularly illuminating are her sessions with a trans woman, Hanna, who also felt deeply a change was needed at 50, one for the better, and decided to transition at this later stage in life. Hanna is a wonderful presence; she explains how music is like sexuality in its playfulness, using for demonstrative purposes Brahms. Hanna asks Laura to mirror her, just as she feels sensuality to the music, Hanna in her “new” feminine body, her penis being just a different form of clitoris she explains, Laura exploring her body that, for so long, has felt like a foreign object or a prison to her. Similarly, Pintilie draws comparisons with Christian Bayerlein, a man whose severe condition, spinal muscular atrophy, left him feeling like a brain stuck in a body for so long, before he discovered that intimacy, sexuality and sensuality were very much open to the disabled too, despite the sexual norms society instills in us.
Christian, along with his wife, Grit, helps others to be more open, particularly Tomas, a man with a condition that left him hairless in childhood, going from “handsome to weird” as he puts it, and a strong compulsion that he must always be or appear to be happy at all times, a habit picked up from his mother – a typical childhood absorption of parental anxieties. Laura’s blockage to pleasure similarly stems from unexplained trouble with her father, now desperately ill in hospital, a huge defensive anger she feels and extends to all others, but particularly male sexuality. Although we don’t know why she feels this way, those who have suffered sexual abuse may well feel resonance with her journey to overcome this burden placed upon her – at times difficult to watch, but ultimately very satisfying when she succeeds in freeing herself.
Pintilie‘s film is shot expertly; interviews and sexual encounters caught on screens eventually give way to less mediated depictions of human pleasure. She never really tries to hide behind the camera, also examining her own troubled reactions to Laura’s process, and blurring the line between fiction and reality in a way that seems to capture the human capacity for love (just of each other, not always romantic) and sensuality. Her craft is impeccable and it’s easy to see why Touch Me Not won the Silver Bear.
It’s films like Pintilie‘s where education and exploration around sex really need to happen, rather than in the skewered, highly problematic realms of mainstream pornography, Hollywood and advertising. In the sexual, sensual world that Pintile has captured, all emotions are welcome and can be examined at one’s own pace. Fetishes are consensual and pleasurable for all involved. Body positivity is key and those whose sexuality society and/or others have robbed from them can be restored and rediscovered in exciting, beautiful ways. Touch Me Not is not always an easy watch but one that is worthwhile.
Touch Me Not is available to rent on MUBI UK.