We cinephiles would like to believe that film is at the forefront of societal change, but when it comes to sexuality, diverse bodies and the intersection of the two, the industry has proven to be decidedly conservative. While Hollywood is slow on the uptake in offering diverse roles to plus-size, disabled and other physically non-conforming actors on screen, the very idea of the sex scene is being repeatedly called into question, a symptom of both a more prudish younger generation and the fallout of the #MeToo movement. So what will audiences make of a film like Touched, this unflinching portrait of transgressive sexuality starring a plus-size model and a paraplegic dancer?
When Marie (Isold Halldórudóttir) meets Alex (Stavros Zafeiris) there is an instant connection beyond the dependency inherent in their relationship. While she is charged with bathing, clothing and feeding him as he recovers from a devastating accident, within minutes of the film’s opening we see her singing to him in bed, a far more intimate bond forming rapidly. The relationship quickly becomes sexual, and for the following two hours we see the obese Marie and the disabled Alex explore each other’s bodies with all their idiosyncrasies. At one point, Marie tacitly admits to never having been loved, while this is the first sexual relationship Alex has had since his accident and subsequent estrangement from his girlfriend. The motives of the two characters are unclear, as much to themselves as to us, and what they are feeling could be love, lust or something else entirely.
This is the second feature from German director Claudia Rorarius, and her first since 2009’s Who Saw Him. Thanks to years of research and conversations with her cast, Rorarius achieves a painstaking depiction of the processes of Alex’s everyday life as he recovers from the accident that caused his disability. Her camera is still and holds its gaze for a number of long takes as we intrude on his undignified daily rituals, its tight aspect ratio bringing us uncomfortably close and boxing the characters in to their incubated existence. This cinematographic style continues as we become voyeurs to the central characters’ sexual discovery, in a number of scenes that vacillate between the erotic and the abusive.
Despite their relative inexperience in cinema, the film’s leading actors are both used to exploring their own bodies personally and professionally, and their talents for physical performance are palpable. With limited dialogue and slow-paced plot, the story of Touched is told by the actors’ bodies and their relationship to space, movement and each other. Spoken and written words are rejected as a means of expressing desire in favour of a more physical language; ‘it’s just a stupid poem’ says Alex about a tattoo of his, as if the effect of great writing and its imaginative possibilities has been dulled by the brutal reality to which he has been victim.
However, this isn’t to say that language doesn’t have a part to play in the film. While bodies communicate desire, words are used to repel, particularly by Alex, who is too aware of his lover’s fragility. While it’s a powerful idea expressed well by the film’s cast, it is here that the film begins to lose its momentum. After an intriguing first half that sees our characters learn to explore each other’s bodies and the complex nuances that come with them, a cycle of disenchantment and reconciliation begins. Each fallout is more vicious that the last, and what was a visual study of physical connection descends into a series of slanging matches. Damaged as they are, both physically and emotionally, Maria and Alex develop into an increasingly toxic duo and it becomes difficult not only to like the two characters but to care what happens to them and their relationship at all.
Provocative and unabashed, Touched forces us to question our ideas of desire, which courses through Rorarius’ film as an agent of both liberation and devastation. While its premise is refreshing and thought-provoking, one can’t help but feel that Rorarius squanders this potential with a repetitive plot that fails to offer its characters any kind of emotional arc. It has some inspired cinematography and a pair of strong central performances, but Touched seems markedly less than the sum of its parts.
Touched premiered at the 76th Locarno Film Festival. Isold Halldórudóttir and Stavros Zafeiris won the Best Performance Leopard.