More than a few people were surprised when “Touch Me Not” took home the Golden Bear, the top prize at 2018’s Berlinale.
The sexually explicit film from Adina Pintilie was in the festival’s competition with Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” Jose Padilha’s “7 Days in Entebbe” and David and Nathan Zellner’s “Damsel.”
But describing “Touch Me Not,” which also screened Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival, as merely sexually explicit is to ignore what Pintilie is trying to do. She’s exploring varieties of sexual experience, from the perspective of trans people, the physically disabled and the psychically disabled, among others.
The map for this exploration comes directly from the Romanian director, whose face appears onscreen, as she interacts with the film’s protagonist, Laura Benson. It turns out that Laura is deeply alienated from her body – and from the bodies of everyone else. She does not want to be touched, and her intimacy issues are extreme. Even the thought of intimacy can produce primal screams.
All of this mixes a documentary style of filmmaking with what is obviously partly fictional. But the lines are intentionally blurred at times. It feels as though the director is trying to make some kind of breakthrough – or an artistic statement about the ultimate beauty and variety of the human body. But that’s a rather ambitious goal for anyone, much less for a filmmaker whose image hovers over the proceedings, with a somewhat godlike presence.
We get a sense of such dynamics in the opening scene, where a steely Laura pays a male prostitute to come to her room. No touching is allowed.
Pintilie tries to get Laura to be a bit more participatory by introducing her to a therapy regimen that includes sexually adventurous characters.
The real-life characters include Hanna Hofmann, who’s in her 50s and spent most of her life as a married man. In the last decade, she has transitioned and is a real estate agent as well as a professional escort. She and Laura do not become physically intimate, but Hanna tries to show Laura how she enjoys her body – and how her sex work helps her explore identity.
Laura also meets Christian Bayerlein, a disabled man with spinal muscular atrophy who’s also a political activist and who enjoys a robust sex life; Tomas Lemarquis, a hairless actor who has alopecia universalis; and Seani Love, a male escort who specializes in breaking down sexual boundaries – a rather frightening prospect for Laura.
“Touch Me Not” will not be a crowd-pleaser – and it’s not at all certain that it will draw much of a crowd at all. It’s challenging, and it’s unclear whether Pintilie’s experiment in sexual exploration is even artistically successful, despite its embrace by jurors in Berlin.
There’s an odd disconnect with some of the characters, in part because each one seems far more complicated than a few minutes of screen time can illuminate. Such superficiality can lead to charges of exploitation. But Pintilie seems genuinely interested in her subjects, despite the inherent prurient subject matter.
Kino Lorber will be distributing the movie in the United States, and it’s expected to be released in New York and Los Angeles on Jan. 11.