This is as close to a tactile experience as you will ever get from a moving picture. Touch Me Not starts with the extreme close-up of a male body, so close you could even count the body hairs. The camera navigates through the unidentified entity: legs, penis, stomach and nipple. This is a suitable taster of incredibly intimate and human film that will follow for the next 125 minutes.
Romanian director Adina Pintilie establishes a dialogue with several real-life characters, in what can be described as a documentary with flavours of fiction, in a roughly congruent arc. Laura, Tómas, Christian and Hanna and Hanna have a very different relation to their sexuality and bodies, and they are all working together in order to overcome their fears and and claim control of their lives. Laura is middle-aged voyeur. She hires a young and good-looking male prostitute whom she watches while he masturbates. One day, she hires the services of Hanna, a 50-something-year-old transsexual extremely confident of her sexuality and her body, despite knowing she doesn’t fit beauty standards. Laura wants to learn how to be as relaxed and liberated.
Meanwhile, Tómas – who has full-body alopecia – is challenged to touch Christian’s face in some sort of therapy session. Christian is severely disabled, with a disfigured body, protruding teeth and saliva constantly drooling from his mouth. Tómas confesses that he feels uncomfortable at doing so, which doesn’t upset Christian. The diminutive disabled man, who has virtually no movement in his body, is very comfortable in his own skin, and it looks like Tómas could learn a lot from him. Christian doesn’t like being told that he “suffers” from a disability, because he’s entirely happy about his life and his looks. . He’s married to a loving able-bodied partner called Grit. He describes himself as “very good-looking”, and his relationship to Grit as “very balanced”. There’s no time for suffering in his life. An incredibly sobering and inspiring attitude.
Hanna and Christian are the two least normative individuals. Yet they are the ones who are most satisfied with their bodies and sexuality. They are perfectly happy to get naked and to carry out new sexual experiments. They are both regulars in a BDSM club, where punters perform their sexual fantasies in front of each other. Eventually, Laura and Tómas begin to open up, face their fears and overcome their limitations. In the closing scene, Laura dances naked to the camera, in a very potent cathartic moment (pictured above). You too will feel like taking your clothes off and spinning around naked in front of everyone else. And proud of your gorgeously imperfect body.
The director never contextualises the movie. We are never told where the story takes place, where these people come from (except for Tómas, who mentions that he’s Icelandic), what sort of therapy is being conducted. This is a movie about human beings, psychological and bodily sensations, devoid of political connotations.
The cinematic apparatus is often foregrounded in Touch Me Out. The director herself opens the film by raising the question “what is this movie all about”, plus showing her camera and filming equipment. It all comes full circle at thje end. Images of the camera screen often drive the narrative, and the director also steps in front of the device. She talks about her own fears, her darkest dreams and her inability to cut the umbilical chord connecting her to her mother. This is metalanguage taken to an extreme, twisted around and turned upside down.
The candid sexuality and graphic images of a disabled man having sex represent another daring aspect of the movie, following in the footsteps of Spanish filmmaker Antonio Centeno (of Yes, We Fuck, 2015, and Living and Other Fictions, 2017). You will even see Christian’s fully erect penis, which he describes as normal functioning and one of the favourite parts of his body (it is indeed a very beautiful cock). Top it all up with a soundtrack by Berlin industrial act Einstuerzende Neubauten, plus screechy chords and human shrieks à la Alan Vega of Suicide. Touch Me Out is a visceral journey of self-discovery throughout.
Touch Me Not showed at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It won the top prize, the Golden Bear – an enormously well-deserved and audacious recognition. It premieres in the UK a part of the BFI London Film Festival taking place between October 10th and the 21st. It’s out in cinemas on Friday, October 19th.