At the start of Touch Me Not, which opened the 2018 Romanian Film Festival in New York City, two men set up a device involving a glass plate and a camera. This is followed by a panning shot in shallow focus detailing the landscape of a male body, skin, hair, follicles, moles. The movement of the camera and its focus are perfectly controlled: light floods the body evenly, leaving no shadows, resulting in a flat objectivity with no physical feature being favored over another. The blurred face of Adina Pintilie, the director of Touch Me Not, appears on the glass plate. She is talking to someone about the film, questioning their relationship: “Why did you not ask me about the film? Or was it me being relieved you don’t ask?” A disembodied woman’s voice replies. The camera turns to reveal, Laura, who is played by Laura Benson, or who is Laura Benson. A svelte woman in her 50s with a mane of dark hair, the seasoned English actor has worked with Patrice Chéreau and other directors known for their exploratory approach to drama.
The stage is set for a film that is going to push limits in terms of form, of narrative, of objectivity and subjectivity. When Laura lets into her room a man who strips to reveal a taut body covered in tattoos, the fictionality of the scene lends itself to doubt. His reticent attitude in front of the camera suggests a real escort man, who is improvising the encounter to some extent. Are they in the actor Laura’s own room? A room in a hotel that is supposed to be her character’s room? A room in a hotel that is supposed to be a room in a hotel? Laura asks the escort the meaning of a text tattooed on his body, and he refuses curtly to answer. While she is not clear about her boundaries, he is. Nevertheless, he has no qualms masturbating in front of her on her bed, as that fits his job description. Once he leaves, she rubs her head with abandon in the sheets he occupied.
Laura’s fear of intimacy forms the film’s main narrative as we follow her various attempts to address the issue. Refreshing, since women of her age group rarely get starring status in films, let alone to explore sexuality and intimacy. As the audience, we get exposed to people we might not rub shoulders with often, and who do not fit in neat categories. Is the person who lectures Laura in a dress, with long hair and make up, with feminine breasts and a penis, a sex worker or a therapist? We would probably identify her as a cross dresser, or as a transgender once she takes her clothes off, but labeling loses relevancy in this narrative, as definitions get challenged. Her name is Hanna Hoffman, and she uses Brahms in her practice as a way to communicate with her customers or patients. She discloses her sexuality with much more ease than Laura shows at prying into her own. Also at ease is the therapist, clearly male, who probes Laura’s fears by touching various parts of her body, beginning with her arms, and her face. When he puts the tip of his fingers above her breasts, she lets out a leonine roar. Seani Love, his true name apparently, is in real life a successful sex worker in the UK. It’s evident that he has developed these techniques as part of his practice, and that Laura is reacting spontaneously, or at least improvising.
The accepted premise in a fiction film, even when improvisation plays a part in the process as in Mike Leigh’s films, is that the actors play imaginary characters, speak up lines, act up scripts in more or less fabricated sets. But an aspect of reality, with the associated element of chance, always figures in: the location, whether a city or a desert, often the time period, certainly the sky, the trees, the ground. And inversely, documentaries are always scripted to some extent, if only in the choice of the protagonists, the camera angle, the selection of dialogue and visual material. Touch Me Not, which bridges both genres, is presented as a fictional piece. Even in a film completely born out of fantasy, sci-fi or supernatural, even when every other aspect of reality has been stripped, the body retains its truth, at least in its physical presence. The actors stimulate personalities and identities, but their eyes really see, their throats contract to speak, they might suffer from diabetes, or be ovulating. It’s nothing new that films have been showing bodies, and bodies have been selling films. On display were select bodies deemed beautiful, and select parts of the body deemed sexy, at least in a particular era.
Touch Me Not concerns itself with bodies outside norms of beauty, with their contingency, with the emotions stoked by their interactions. When Laura’s father lies dying in a hospital bed, he looks truly old, but we are in the dark as to whether he really is sick, or dying, and we certainly doubt that he is Laura’s father in life. Yet another body in the film, this one past sexuality, this one mute and helpless, he seems reduced to his dying shell. But there is emotional baggage between them, and a suggestion that the anger Laura feels for him is linked to her fear of intimacy. Eventually, she breaks his favorite record right in front of his eyes. He winces. Emotions are still manning this nearly paralytic body.
Laura makes her way down the hospital’s corridors where clear partition walls promote transparency. A group therapy session catches her attention, one of its participants in particular. Played by Tómas Lemarquis, Tómas looks like he comes from the future with his hairless face and chiseled features. In fact, he has played in sci-fi blockbusters Blade Runner 2049 and X-Men: Apocalypse. She becomes obsessed by the unusual man, and stalks him. This leads to the second narrative thread, focused on Tómas. He is in a relationship with a woman where he seems to be “looking in” rather than fully engaged. Their rapport lacks definitions as the scenes are barely sketched, and do not include dialogue, but sex plays a part. Tómas’ narrative is more clearly fictional than Laura’s, and the less satisfying as the story line is rather banal, and the character of the girlfriend never developed. She breaks up the relationship, with the implication that she is dissatisfied with his incapacity for intimacy and closeness. Soon he develops an obsession for his ex partner, leading him to stalk her as Laura stalks him, a safe way to stay aloof. They look on as we, the audience, look on. But we aren’t allowed to sit back and enjoy the film as a kind of peepshow. In most fiction films, the director invites the audience to join in watching the actors from the other side of the fourth wall. This distancing often leads to an ironical perspective that is totally absent in Touch Me Not. Deconstructing the filmmaking process by featuring the director runs the risk of archness and futility — remember Woody Allen’s interventions in Sweet and Lowdown. The irruptions of the director in Touch Me Not, not always successful, forces the audience to engage. In a rather contrived effort, Adina brings in a dream where she and her partner are having sex with her mother present. More interestingly, she reports that her mother doesn’t really want to discuss the film while she’s making it. All categories are blurred: viewing vs being viewed, acting vs being for real, scripted vs improvised scenes. . .
To read the rest of this review, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/adina-pintilie-touch-me-not/
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