When Romanian director Adina Pintilie’s “Touch Me Not” won the top prize at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, it wasn’t a typical consensus favorite. The scenes at a BDSM club have made some spectators and critics uneasy. But “Touch Me Not” isn’t softcore porn; if anything, it’s painfully earnest. Pintilie’s film is a hybrid of fiction and documentary elements whose premise evokes Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape.” Pinitilie depicts herself on a quest to show subjects searching for intimacy and trying to find sex and love in a world with very narrow beauty standards.
The film’s opening line is “Why haven’t you ever asked what this film is about?” This is delivered as Pintilie is framed in the gaze of a camera that is being arranged by two men. She goes on to wonder about her subjects’ silence. The penultimate scene of “Touch Me Not” returns to the same reflexivity, but the voyeurism implied by these moments never goes very far.
The concept of “Touch Me Not” could take us into very creepy territory, which it generally avoids. The camera’s gaze is controlled by a woman, and the naked flesh it examines belongs to both men and women who aren’t conventionally attractive. The most sensual scene is an extended tracking shot over the torso of Tómas Lemarquis, a man with no hair, in extreme close-up. When Laura Benson takes off her clothes, she reveals the body of a middle-aged woman who’s aged without the plastic surgery most Hollywood actresses rely on. If “Touch Me Not” consisted of extended nude scenes with thin 21-year-old women, its gaze would seem a lot more objectifying.
The film’s biggest flaw is its clinical vibe. “Touch Me Not” almost feels like an infomercial made by a sex therapist. (Seani Love, who appears in a scene with Laura, is described in its press kit as “male escort specializing in erotic journeys using the wonderful overlaps between Conscious Kink, BDSM, and neoTantra .”) Even if Pintilie filmed people engaging in activities they would really undergo in their life, they’re filmed in a way that actually makes them seem less emotional or truly personal. Much of this stems from the film’s use of color. White tones dominant George Chipper-Lillemark’s cinematography. During a scene between Tómas, Christian Bayerlein, and other people, everyone wears white T-shirts and slacks and rests on a floor backed by a wall of the same shade. Unintentionally, the people bleed into the background. An institutional overtone dominates and even creeps into scenes of its subjects’ everyday life, like an overhead shot of Benson taking a bath.
“Touch Me Not” only comes into its own in its final half hour. Before then, its talk of intimacy is mostly theoretical. The only exceptions are the scenes with Christian, a disabled man who has difficulty walking, buck teeth, and perpetual drool at the sides of his mouth. He insists on his own beauty and his desire to be taken seriously as a sexual partner. He interacts with Tómas, who is relatively handsome by conventional standards, even if a disease took away his body’s ability to grow hair. On the other hand, it is genuinely daring for someone who looks like Christian to call himself beautiful. He has obviously fought a real battle to attain his current level of confidence and self-esteem, which is reflected in the passion of his scenes. But that level of engagement is missing from the rest of “Touch Me Not.”
The casts non-actors as themselves, but as far as I can tell, it puts them in situations with people they didn’t know beforehand. It then expects them to reveal their bodies and souls. Maybe it’s no surprise that the film itself takes 90 minutes to get warmed up or that the awkwardness of trying to connect with other people rises from subtext to text. When Tómas and Laura cuddle in the nude, the clinical atmosphere of its earlier moments melts away.
It’s a shame that “Touch Me Not” saves its best scene for last: Laura dancing in the nude to a song by industrial music pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten (who performed the film’s soundtrack). She looks happy and free of self-consciousness about her body, even wandering out of the frame once. Of course Pintilie probably directed her to do so and carefully set this scene up, but “Touch Me Not” finally expresses a real vision of physical and emotional liberation after two hours of words and images grappling gingerly but almost obsessively with the subject.
TOUCH ME NOT | Directed by Adina Pinitilie | Kino Lorber | Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. | Jan. 11-12 & 15 at 6:30 p.m.; Jan. 13-14 & 16-17 at 4 p.m. | $12; $10 for seniors; $8 for students at moma.org