This highly-provocative Golden Berlin Bear winner does something unusual and unlikely—it forces us to rethink about human intimacy and sexuality through the uncomfortable lens of the camera.
Dir. Adina Pintilie
2018 | Romania/Germany | Documentary | 123 mins | 1.85:1 | English & German
R21 (passed clean) for nudity and sexual content
Plot: On the fluid border between reality and fiction, the film follows the emotional journeys of Laura, Tómas and Christian, offering a deeply empathetic insight into their intimate lives.
Awards: Won Golden Bear & Best First Feature Award (Berlin)
International Sales: Doc & Film Intl
Subject Matter: Mature/Controversial
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore Film Society screening)
Some have argued that a controversial film like this shouldn’t have won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. I disagree, and in fact, I strongly feel that films that push the boundaries of what cinema can do should be duly rewarded, wherever possible.
It is likely that Touch Me Not will not be remembered in decades to come, except possibly as a curious footnote about documentaries winning top prizes at major festivals, but its Golden Bear win here should at the very least get film enthusiasts intrigued enough to want to see what the big deal is.
“Every emotion is welcome here.”
There is nothing really sensational about Touch Me Not; in fact, one might even call it a dour and clinical affair. But therein lies its attraction—its cold and calculated veneer hides an empathetic work about human intimacy and sexuality.
One might even struggle to sense that empathy because the filmmaker, Adina Pintilie, seems more intent in capturing conversations, behaviours and actions as matter-of-fact as possible, some of which can get into rather uncomfortable territory.
Pintilie has not made many films, and this is her first full-length documentary, but her camera—which literally bookends the film as it is physically (or perhaps even symbolically) set up and taken apart by her crew—provides an unflinching gaze on her subjects.
There were reportedly many walk-outs during the first press screening. But later at the world premiere, there were only very few and the reception was positive including a big applause.
At one point, Pintilie is asked by her main subject to exchange places, causing the former to feel discomfort in front of the camera, as if the audience now has direct, uninhibited access to her.
In this context, one might wonder how do Pintilie’s subjects feel. Do they feel naked? At some point in Touch Me Not, they all are, enjoying all manner of physical connection, including what appears to be unsimulated sex. Perhaps this is the film’s most contentious part, where real human beings engage in physical intimacy with one another for the camera.
In a more provocative way, Touch Me Not also implicates audiences in the act of gazing (long takes sometimes force us to stare longer than usual) when there is nothing (appealingly) erotic about the proceedings.
Pintilie’s work is not uninteresting at all; in fact, I find it a breath of fresh air. Her use of experimental electronic music performed by Einstürzende Neubauten, particularly a recurring track that is infused with an ethnic voice that grows (or moans) louder before cutting short gives the film a sublime sonic power.