Romanian director Adina Pintilie’s feature debut Touch Me Not, a highly personal study of sexual intimacy, was already the most controversial inclusion in the Berlinale’s main competition before its shock win of the Golden Bear for Best Film last weekend. While many were thrilled that the jury (led by German director Tom Tykwer) had opted for such a bold, experimental take on emotional risk, others expressed vocal outrage that the film had been taken seriously at all. The Guardian’s take-down by Peter Bradshaw — who claimed the film’s awfulness had “deluged him in a tidal wave of depression” and deemed its triumph a “catastrophe” on a par with Brexit — was so acerbically disdainful it became a minor scandal in itself. While typifying his hyperbolic brand of waggish humour, his opinion piece nevertheless conveyed a level of hostility shared by many of his peers that seemed suspiciously disproportionate to those of us with a genuine appreciation of the film’s merits. So, what was it about Touch Me Not that infuriated them so much?
With its formally unconventional but seamless blend of fiction and reality, Touch Me Not disoriented some used to more straightforward narrative structures. Its episodic encounters together act as a kind of therapy laboratory, offering new ways to think about the body and tools for accessing intimacy. Pintilie herself frequently enters the frame as director, seen through a monitor screen asking probing questions of herself and others as she conducts her research. It’s clear that, for her, filming is an obsessive search for the key to experiencing love as something other than intrusion. By baldly demanding the trust of its subjects before an audience, the camera magnifies everyday pressures — and Pintilie seems to hope it can reveal something the naked eye cannot see. The characters are muses, conduits or perhaps even surrogates for this exploration, focused on the diffident yet inquisitive Laura (actress Laura Benson) as she meets with sex workers and therapists to address the discomfort she feels at physical contact.
It’s an approach to cinema that seemed the height of navel-gazing self-indulgence to some. Many audience walkouts occurred in Berlin during a scene where Laura watches a Bulgarian hustler masturbate while unable to join in. Some were offended by the film’s explicit nature. Others no doubt felt an indignation they couldn’t name upon being immersed in a sex scene in which the usual script was inverted: instead of the glamourised female object of desire, we are confronted by the disappointments this collective delusion has fostered. The film’s take on notions of beauty and bracing affirmation of difference deepens when Laura meets with charismatic Munich transsexual and Brahms fanatic Hanna (Hanna Hoffman) for a home peep-show; Hannah propounds her philosophy that there is no sexuality — or human body — classifiable as good or bad. The most assumption-challenging sequence of all takes place in a touch-therapy workshop. Tudor (Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis), who lost all his hair as a teen due to alopecia universalis, is paired with Christian (Christian Bayerlein), who enjoys a fulfilling sexual relationship with his wife despite being severely disabled by spinal muscular atrophy, and whose unexpected body confidence is revelatory.
With its formally unconventional but seamless blend of fiction and reality, Touch Me Not disoriented some used to more straightforward narrative
The main complaint from skeptical critics, fed up with all this analytical interrogation, was that the film is “joyless” and “humourless”. Pintilie riled them by insisting on an earnest respect for her characters and a radically humanistic notion that their intimacy issues are of deep importance to all of us, not merely a spectacle for comedic entertainment or niche fare for minorities only. By employing many cliches of provocative arthouse cinema — from a BDSM club jaunt to the figure of the sexual ingenue in search of education — but refusing to use them in service of titillation, Pintilie allows no escape to an audience unwilling to confront their own unconscious expectations about commodified bodies. There is not the distancing device of gleeful irony to fall back on, common to the films of alpha-male provocateurs such as Lars von Trier, whose performative depictions of the disabled (The Idiots) or the sexually experimental (Nymphomaniac) offer a safe illusion of transgression without any accompanying need to question the status quo —we know he’s probably just having us on anyway, and there’s nothing at stake. Pintilie gave us all the ingredients for something that should have been trashily saucy, these aghast critics seem to say, then refused us the mindless fun.
That divisive films have the power to stir up heated debate is one of their greatest pleasures. But in the case of festival juries and their closed-door mysteries, when a decision does not match predictions there can be a tendency to attribute ulterior motives. This Berlinale edition came at an unstable time for the festival. Its long-time director Dieter Kosslick is unpopular for presiding over a perceived decline in programming quality toward less innovative and more star-powered fare; with him about to retire, debate swirls as to whether the event can reinvent itself. That Touch Me Not — the kind of film more often found in an experimentation-friendly side-section than the main competition — was crowned by the jury was seen by some as a political choice, awarding the radical spirit the film represented rather than any intrinsic quality in its execution. More insidious was the conflation in some reporting of the film with the #MeToo movement, which it has little to do with either literally (it was in development years before that hashtag revolution) or thematically (unless any film by a woman about sexual reticence is now reducible to that label). With this tenuous connection made, it became easier to dismiss the award as a cynical bandwagon exercise.
Now that Touch Me Not has the Golden Bear, we might well ask why Pintilie need to care about critics’ public tantrums. Unfortunately, a certain sabotage is built into the notion that the award was a shameful mistake. Given that this was its world premiere, anyone outside the Berlinale has only press reports to rely on. Within Pintilie’s native Romania this has suited the right-wing, who have widely reproduced Bradshaw’s comments in the media to justify their aggressive rejection of a film they haven’t seen but which threatens their core values; they can claim that this is what EU co-productions and western liberal decadence produce. Certainly, the film (rejected twice for state funding) is very different from the naturalistic, black-humoured Romanian New Wave classics that have brought the nation’s cinema global arthouse acclaim over the last two decades (New Wave masterpieces such as Cristi Puiu’s Aurora and Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas are both films about men having relationship breakdowns during mid-life crises). Once at the festival vanguard, that style is becoming a stale template, and black sheep like Pintilie face strong barriers in forging past it. Journalism these days favours polemical hot takes with scant regard for context; maybe outbursts like Bradshaw’s are just what critics do now. Like it or not, however, the Golden Bear affirms another truth: that to many, Touch Me Not is real cinema, too.