Featuring a mix of fiction and real life, Touch Me Not explores intimacy in an experimental feature film that manages to make sex seem unlikely and tiresome.
Audiences are hard to shock these days. We have an unprecedented sophistication about human sexual behavior because internet porn has been around a long time. Most adults have satisfied any curiosities about sexual variations by going down online rabbit holes to take a look. Director Adina Pintilie disregards that baseline internet sex ed and rolls out presentations that are incredibly mild for the times, but are meant to be bold and taboo.
Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis) has alopecia and his body is entirely hairless. This is presented as a deformity, but in fact he is a very attractive man. He’s young, fit, and has a unique look about him with a great personality. If he’s not getting laid on a regular basis, he’s just going to the wrong places.
Rather than explore titillations and diverse sexual interests, Pintilie guts the whole notion of sex for pleasure in mise-en-scène of dysfunction that evoke, in turns, body horror, apathy, and shame. It’s as though she doesn’t want the viewer to get turned on by anything on the screen, carefully steering every image toward a sterile, timid take on sexuality. Visually, the film is formless: actors in white clothes shot against white backgrounds. The group intimacy room looks more like a common room in an asylum.
“…his penis works fine and he quite likes it. Of all his parts, that one doesn’t disappoint.“
Ostensibly the focus is on emotional connection, but the film fails to achieve even that, keeping a literal and figurative distance between the characters and the viewer. The director herself appears and is remote, framed in the monitor of her camera mostly, then at one point switching places with the main character Laura (Laura Benson) to comment that yes, this is indeed awkward and uncomfortable being filmed and interviewed in this fashion.
Tómas is shown in a BDSM club. We see a bit of rope play, some oral sex, but it’s too dark for the camera to catch much. He seems to be enjoying the scene. Again, in a world without the internet, these images would be daring and challenging, but we’ve all seen more on our own screens.
Laura is an older woman who has difficulty connecting. She hires a male sex worker to masturbate for her, but she doesn’t participate. She watches. She engages a male pro-dom to push her boundaries a bit while we watch, and a transgender prostitute who poses nude for her and talks about her fantasies.
Laura wears her age and emotional distance like a crown of thorns, but, like Tómas, she’s also attractive and only mildly affected by her introversion. A couple of drinks and a party dress and she’d have no problem whatsoever hanging out.
“…throwing off her disaffected stillness and kicking up her heels…“
Christian Bayerlein is a profoundly disabled quadriplegic man, bound to a wheelchair and dependent on others to survive. Using him as a subject is potentially exploitative, and would be salacious, were the approach to his story not so dull. So much of that is in the eye of the beholder. It depends entirely on why a viewer is watching. We see some intimacy exercises between him and Tómas. We see Christian with his wife, who cares for him constantly.
He seems a gentle soul, at peace with his world and surrounded by care and affection. His disability is scary and unusual, to be sure. Considering sex in such a condition is probably uncomfortable for most viewers, yet Christian says his penis works fine and he quite likes it. Of all his parts, that one doesn’t disappoint. Pintilie dares us to be repulsed, but we are merely bored.
The best minutes of the film (and there are a lot of minutes, over 120) are just at the end when Laura strips and dances for the camera, throwing off her disaffected stillness and kicking up her heels like the sexy beast that she is, that we all are.
Touch Me Not (2019) Written and directed by Adina Pintilie. Starring Laura Benson, Tómas Lemarquis, Christian Bayerlein.
6 out of 10