Touch Me Not quickly sinks into a repetitive slog in which we return over and over to the same settings to have minor variations on the same conversations.
Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not opens like a parody of European sexual dramas. While a soft focus close-up highlights the body hair of a man as the camera gently moves from his stomach up to his face, a blinding white light renders what might have been erotic as antiseptic, which in turn casts the sudden, sexual moan that ripples across the soundtrack as more ambient than charged. It is a clinical view of sex, studying it like a scientist attempting to define the act of procreation by looking at sperm under a microscope. The European art film clichés compound when we see Pintilie herself on a video monitor erected so that she can ask metatextual questions of the film’s performers. “Why haven’t you ever asked me what is this film about,” Pintilie asks an unseen subject as her face stares back at the audience. “And why haven’t I ever told you, anyway?”
Pintile’s self-reflexive blend of fiction and non-fiction leads to no particular aesthetic experiments, merely a structure in which she constantly pulls back from her icy, abstract framings to baldly state themes that already exist out in the open with nowhere to hide. The film’s subject concerns both the longing for and difficulty of intimacy between people, and Pintilie tackles such matters from several angles. In one recurring thread, a middle-aged woman, Laura (Laura Benson), meets with a series of sex workers in an attempt to liberate herself, though her experiences with these workers are less physical than emotional. Many of these sex workers do as much therapy as anything, engaging in sessions in which they allow Laura to confide in her own feelings about her body and sexuality while sharing their own.
These scenes make up some of the film’s strongest material. One sexual counselor (Seani Love) engages in something akin to scream therapy, striking the woman with her consent to encourage her to release her pent-up inhibitions. Elsewhere, a transgender sex worker, Hanna (Hanna Hofmann), uses her time with Laura as much to explore her own questions of identity as her client’s, showing off her body and pointing out the things she likes and doesn’t like about it while also encouraging Laura to discuss herself. Intriguingly, Hanna just tries to get to know Laura, speaking about her own childhood and reminiscing about her father’s love of classical piano as a means of putting her client at ease. Hanna’s scenes in particular are a reminder that sex work, seen as a cold transaction, must involve emotional connection in order to fully fulfill its physical side, and that so much of the job effectively involves listening to clients who want to confide in someone as much as feel pleasure.
More interesting still are scenes where disabled people meet in a group to discuss and exhibit their sexuality and connection with others. Front and center in these moments is Christian Bayerlein, a man with spinal muscular atrophy who speaks frankly about his life and how he feels sexual desires as much as anyone else. Christian, with his piercing eyes, charming honesty and occasional humor, is a far more captivating subject than Laura and her meandering, arthouse search for self-actualization. When asked what his favorite body part is, Christian first notes his eyes but eventually confesses that he loves his penis as it is “one of the parts of my body that works normally.” We see the man be intimate with his partner (Grit Uhlemann) in both these talking sessions and, in later scenes that converge the film’s various performers in a BDSM sex club, engaging in sex acts, and Pintilie impressively manages to document Christian and the other disabled people in the film without an ounce of pity or condescension, an unfortunate rarity in film.
Even so, the abstract, self-analyzing prism through which Pintile views her subject matter regularly undermines her own theme of intimacy. By using bleached settings and spartan compositions to leave both performers and viewers unable to distract themselves from the frank conversations of feelings, the film ironically deepens rather than shrinks the sense of emotional distance. The conceit of pairing real people and sex workers with actors produces awkward interactions in which unvarnished dialogue comes across as heavily scripted. This is especially noticeable in the inclusion of actor Tómas Lemarquis, who has alopecia, among the disabled people discussing their sexual frustrations. Lemarquis initially looks uncomfortable as he is encouraged to discuss his embarrassment over premature baldness while hearing more challenging stories of self-actualization. Only at the end, after he has struck up a friendship with Christian and Grit over their shared intimacy, does he not seem like a clumsy addition to the film.
As Pintilie deliberately avoids aesthetic complication in her images, Touch Me Not quickly sinks into a repetitive slog in which we return over and over to the same settings to have minor variations on the same conversations, and its two hours drags interminably. For an experimental filmmaker, Pintilie has crafted something wearyingly common in its regurgitation of decades of Euro art clichés and stereotypes in its thoroughly de-eroticized, abstract notion of sex. The director’s self-reflexive filter is the worst choice of all, a means of constantly interrupting the already inert flow of the film just so she can even more directly interrogate the performers about themselves. This puts the focus onto herself at the most inopportune times. In one scene, Christian speaks to Pintilie about his disdain for the common phrasing that one “suffers” from a disability. With a calm but defiant voice, the man insists that he does not suffer at all from his condition and does not view himself as lesser, a powerful statement of self from the kind of person who is too often spoken for by others. At the height of this moment, however, the camera reverses to show Pintilie on the monitor, smiling with approval at Christian’s monologue, shattering the moment of Christian firmly taking control of his own narrative by reasserting her own power as director.