Touch Me Not first look: Adina Pintilie’s Golden Bear winner explores hard-won sexual self-determination

A brave experiment in opening the screen to less sexually cocksure voices, Pintilie’s unflinching portrait of differently marginalised characters learning to find comfort in their own skin is at its best when at its most direct.

Reviewed at the 2018 Berlinale Film Festival.

Paul O’Callaghan
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Laura Benson in Touch Me Not

Laura Benson in Touch Me Not

Earlier this month, the Berlinale issued a statement acknowledging the impact of the #MeToo movement on their 2018 programme, pledging commitments “to the struggle of sexual self-determination and against any and all forms of abuse”. With this in mind, Touch Me Not, a female-helmed hybrid film exploring the very notion of sexual self-determination from multiple minority perspectives, seemed like a particularly pointed and timely addition to the headline Competition strand. While first-time director Adina Pintilie was an unknown quantity, I’d heard that this was a title the programmers were particularly excited about. And yet there were mass walkouts at its first press screening, the initial critical reaction was largely hostile, and its subsequent Golden Bear win seems to have blindsided most.

Touch Me Not centres around Laura (Laura Benson), a middle-aged British woman with a strong aversion to physical contact, which naturally makes any form of intimacy an uphill struggle. In an attempt to overcome this, she enlists the help of various sex workers and therapists, all non-actors drawing on their own real-world experiences. Parallel to this, a man with alopecia named Tudor (Tómas Lemarquis) participates in group touch therapy sessions, and his experiences begin to intersect with Laura’s.

The first potential stumbling block for sceptical viewers is the film’s unsettlingly clinical tone. Much of the action unfolds against stark white backgrounds, while the characters assert their identities in a calmly detached manner. I was personally drawn in by this slow and steady approach to issues that could so easily have been sensationalised, but some may feel that Pintilie is obstinately holding them at arm’s length.

Touch Me Not (2018)

Coupled with this is an unflinching attitude to sex that seems to be causing a certain amount of discomfort. The first walkouts at my screening occurred during an early sequence in which Laura hires a handsome young male escort to shower and masturbate in front of her. Afterwards, she throws herself down on the sheets where he lay and sniffs at them hungrily. It’s a jolting, uncomfortably revealing moment, which conveys a vivid sense of the desire, frustration and shame clawing away at the character. The film serves up a further handful of similarly explicit scenarios, generally involving individuals who don’t conform to conventional notions of natural beauty. But Pintilie’s gaze is curious without being voyeuristic, and her goal is clearly to build a compelling case for embracing sexual diversity.

Supporting characters add welcome splashes of warmth. The most straightforwardly moving scenes involve Christian Bayerlein, a severely disabled man living with spinal muscular atrophy. I flinched at a moment in which he’s asked to describe the parts of his body he likes the most, a line of questioning that struck me as insensitive. But as he delivered his eloquent, level-headed response, I felt slightly ashamed that my instinctive response had been one of patronising pity. It transpires that he’s found plenty to love about his appearance, and enjoys a more fulfilling and adventurous sex life than many, and as such is in no need of kid glove treatment.

Another standout sequence sees Laura spend time with Hannah, an aging trans sex worker whose passion for body positivity is intertwined with a love of classical music. She nonchalantly demonstrates her approach to masturbation, and shares intimate details of her transition, which began at the age of 50. As with Christian, it’s a joy to see someone whose identity falls far outside the mainstream so comfortable in their own skin. Laura observes her with what appears to be a mixture of gratitude and envy, with Benson’s performance so convincing that I mistakenly assumed the character had been directly shaped by personal experience.

Touch Me Not (2018)

Other facets are handled more obliquely. During sessions with another sex therapist, jocular Brit Seani Love, Laura responds more readily to rough handling than to tenderness, hinting at a nascent submissive sexual identity. But this is never satisfyingly elaborated on. Frustrating, too, is the half-hearted manner in which it’s hinted that the root cause of Laura’s problems may be a problematic or abusive relationship with her dying father. And the way in which Laura and Tudor are brought together for the final act is comically contrived, somewhat undermining the effective precision of earlier sequences.

However none of these missteps are egregious enough to warrant the glibly dismissive reaction the film has elicited in some quarters. Touch Me Not should strike a chord most readily with those who’ve struggled to understand or express their own identity (a more broadly enthusiastic response on the queer festival circuit surely awaits), but adventurous viewers of all persuasions should approach this scrappy, well-intentioned, restlessly inquisitive celebration of female and minority sexuality with an open mind.

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