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Review: Touch Me Not

Writer-director Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not depicts sexuality with unaccustomed frankness.

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Touch Me Not
Photo: Kino Lorber

Writer-director Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not depicts sexuality with unaccustomed frankness, but it would probably be a mistake to describe it as a film about sex. The focus of this unique hybrid of fiction and documentary is actually the pleasures and pains of bodily contact between people. In sex, the film suggests, we should be able to relate to both our and another’s body without reservations. In Pintilie’s film, consensual, mutually pleasurable sex represents a utopia of touch that we should try to find in other arenas as well, rather than an object of interest for its own sake.

Touch Me Not’s narrative, such as it is, is divided between the perspectives of its two principal characters, Laura (Laura Benson) and Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis), as they try to break free from their repressed relationships to bodily contact. Laura is deeply uncomfortable about being touched, and to achieve a smidgen of sexual satisfaction, she’s been hiring rent boys to masturbate in front of her. Her sexual reluctance is a result of trauma of ambiguous origin, though it’s perhaps tied to the bodily suffering of her father, whom she occasionally visits in hospice care.

After Laura unsuccessfully tries to strike up a conversation with her regular rent boy (Georgi Naldzhiev), she begins booking other sex workers, mostly for conversations about how she might conquer her sexual anxieties. Her interviewees are Hannah Hofmann, a transgender prostitute, and Seani Love, a BDSM specialist, both real-life sex workers. In Laura’s discussions with them, the film melds together the fictional character’s motivations, what seem to be Benson’s honest reactions, and Pintilie’s humane but probing perspective on sexuality. Further blurring the established boundaries of self and other, story and fact, Pintilie herself crosses into the film at various points; she first appears via an Interrotron device as she interviews Laura, and eventually enters the film world and allows her characters to take over the camera.

In the staged portions of Touch Me Not, Laura’s story intersects with that of Tómas, a young man with alopecia who attends a kind of clinic on touching, hosted in an otherworldly, bleach-white room somewhere in the hospital. (The room is redolent of the prison in THX-1138, a surely unintentional reference only accentuated by Tómas’s bald head.) In the class, assigned partners get to know each other by running their hands over each other’s faces and honestly describing their sensations and reactions thereto. Tómas’s assigned partner is a man with spinal muscular atrophy named Christian, played by Christian Bayerlein, a non-actor and real-life activist for the rights of the disabled, whose interactions with Tómas are in many ways the moral center of the film.

Christian must use a wheelchair for mobility, as he has limited use of his limbs, and his chin is often streaked with spittle. When Tómas reports his reactions to touching Christian’s face, he speaks delicately of the unfamiliar sensation of feeling someone else’s saliva. Later, Tómas expresses concern that he’s wounded Christian, but the man reassures him that, in reality, “there is no good or bad,” just reactions that should be addressed honestly.

It’s clear here that Christian and, through him, Pintilie aren’t promulgating a crudely understood version of a Nietzschean “beyond good and evil,” in which the powerful would be allowed to do and say whatever they want. His point of view is closer to the ethos that the physically frail German philosopher actually espoused: to be responsive to the body as the seat of desire, pleasure, and experience, and acknowledge—rather than repress—the reality of other people’s bodies. In the conversations between Christian and Tómas, Pintilie and Bayerlein radically and admirably de-sentimentalize the disabled body: Christian speaks openly of the particular experiences he has as a disabled man, both in negative and affirming terms, and he isn’t bashful about including sex among those experiences.

Touch Me Not isn’t without its flaws—among its fictional threads is an underdeveloped late-film subplot about Tómas’s jealousy over an ex-girlfriend’s sex life—but it’s a fresh and often stunning reminder that film can be an effective tool for crossing the boundaries erected by repression and spurious understandings of difference. Touch Me Not’s commingling of narrator and narrative, character and actor, fiction and documentary suggests that cinema itself is capable of being a manner of touch, the site of a nebulous and freeing encounter between people.

Cast: Laura Benson, Tómas Lemarquis, Christian Bayerlein, Grit Uhlemann, Hanna Hofmann, Seani Love Director: Adina Pintilie Screenwriter: Adina Pintilie Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 123 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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