“Touch Me Not”
Writer-director Adina Pintilie’s “Touch Me Not” follows the emotional journeys of Laura, Tomas and Christian as they teeter on the border between reality and fiction. This gives us a deep and empathetic insight into the lives of these three characters. We sense that they have the desire for intimacy but they are also afraid of it. They work at overcoming old patterns, defense mechanisms and taboos, so that they can be free. The film is really about how we can find intimacy in the most unexpected ways, at how to love another without losing ourselves. We see sexuality portrayed with a frankness we have not seen before in a feature film. The focus of this coming together of fiction and documentary is actually the pleasures and pains of bodily contact between people. We see that in sex, we should be able to relate to both our and another’s body completely and without reservations. Here “consensual, mutually pleasurable sex represents a utopia of touch that we should try to find in other arenas as well, rather than an object of interest for its own sake.”
What there is of narrative, is divided between the perspectives of its two principal characters, Laura (Laura Benson) and Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis), as they try to leave behind repressed relationships. Laura is deeply uncomfortable about being touched, and now for sexual satisfaction, she’s been hiring hustlers and rent boys to masturbate in front of her. Her reluctance about sex is a result of trauma of ambiguous origin, though it’s perhaps tied to the bodily suffering of her father, whom she occasionally visits in hospice care.
After Laura tries and fails to strike up a conversation with her regular rent boy (Georgi Naldzhiev), she begins booking other sex workers, mostly for conversations about how she might overcome her sexual anxieties. Her interviewees include Hannah Hofmann, a transgender prostitute, and Seani Love, a BDSM specialist and they are both real-life sex workers. In Laura’s discussions with them, the film brings together the fictional character’s motivations, what seem to be her honest reactions and Pintilie’s perspective on sexuality. This clouds the established boundaries of self and other and story and fact.
Laura’s story intersects with that of Tómas, a young man with alopecia who goes to a kind of clinic on touching, hosted in room somewhere in the hospital. It looks like a prison cell. In the class that meets there, assigned partners get to know each other by running their hands over each other’s faces and honestly describing their sensations and reactions. Tómas’s assigned partner is a man with spinal muscular atrophy named Christian, (Christian Bayerlein), a non-actor and real-life activist for the rights of the disabled, whose interactions with Tómas are the moral center of the film.
Christian must use a wheelchair for mobility, as he has limited use of his limbs, and his chin is often streaked with spittle. When Tómas reports his reactions to touching Christian’s face, he speaks of the sensation of feeling someone else’s saliva. Later, Tómas expresses concern that he’s wounded Christian, but the man reassures him that, in reality, “there is no good or bad,” just reactions that should be addressed honestly. When Christian and Tómas speak to each other, they de-sentimentalize the disabled body radically: Christian speaks openly of the particular experiences he has as a disabled man, both in negative and affirming terms, and he isn’t bashful about including sex among those experiences.
Christian, who has to live with many physical impairments, talks candidly about what turns him on, what turns him off and his love life with his long-standing girlfriend. They both participate in a workshop on body awareness attended by people of all ages, with and without disabilities. As we watch, we also look at our own preconceived opinions and ideas of intimacy.
There’s a lot of explicit sex and a lot of frank sex talk in the film. The film uses a blend of documentary and narrative fiction, meant to pierce through preconceived notions about what sex is, who “gets” to have good sex, how we perceive one another (or don’t) as sexual beings.
Many of the people in the film are non-actors. Many have disabilities. One of the recurring scenes is a group therapy session, where people are led through different exercises, similar to what happens in an acting class. When Christian speaks about his sexuality, he does so with openness: “I love my penis because it’s the only part of my body that functions normally.”
In “Touch Me Not,” sex is not just about the act itself. It’s also about the issues around the act, the damage and unmanaged trauma that we carry into the bedroom. I am sure that there will be people who won’t like this film for all kinds of reasons. It is not easy to watch simply because it is difficult for us to divorce ourselves from what we see on the screen.