“At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem. Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. But, [in the nineteenth century], sexuality was carefully confined into the home. On the subject of sex, silence became the rule. Nothing that was not ordered in terms of [reproduction]…could expect sanction or protection. It would be driven out, denied, and reduced to silence. But have we not liberated ourselves from these two long centuries in which the history of sexuality must be seen first of all as the chronicle of an increasing repression?” (Foucault)
As much as we would like to respond to Foucault’s question with a resounding “yes,” director Adina Pintilie shines a camera at herself and her subjects to complicate our rhetoric of contemporary sexual liberation. In baring her emotional fears and her subjects’ sexual alienation, Pintilie asks herself and her audience: aren’t we more repressed than ever? Pintilie’s reflexive film, Touch Me Not (2018), is focused on her research interests regarding her own sexual and emotional repression. Her film blurs the line between documentary and fiction, focusing primarily on Laura–an emotionally and sexually stunted fifty-year-old woman. The age of Pintilie’s protagonist/subject helps guide her research in surveying both the transformation of attitude towards intimacy within Laura’s lifetime and how the adult remains constrained by formative experiences. Laura tells Pintilie how she feels her story is not unique, and that she cannot identify what has led her to this repressed state. In fact, many of the subjects in the film share her alienation, including the director herself. The contained study is presented as an example of an emotional inhibition that seems to have become societally virulent. Throughout the film, a leitmotif appears with accompanying lyrics: “Melancholy floats over the new city and over the country.”
Although Pintilie and her subjects never manage to ascertain the specific origins of their condition, the physical tests they subject themselves to identifies its triggers and limits. During a session with an intimacy coordinator, Laura consents to be touched; after a few moments, she releases a guttural scream. Another of Pintilie’s subjects, Tomas, touches his partner’s face during a group therapy session; he describes the sensation as “rejection.” During these moments, Pintilie attempts to create a “safe-space” for her actors/subjects–we are never certain–by providing them with a monitor that displays her surveillance and direction of them. Her reflexive technique complicates the cliché of the reclusive director who investigates their own emotional quandaries vicariously through their actor’s candor–remaining hidden in the process. Sharing vulnerability with her subjects on-screen is Pintilie’s claim against hierarchy and exploitation. She is just as much an affected and participatory subject as Laura and Thomas are. However, the more frequently lights, c-stands, and monitors seem to get in the way of direct communication, a question arises. Within a repressed society, is Pintilie’s set simply a professional justification for access to intimacy?
Like Pintilie, Laura and Tomas approach intimacy through transaction. Pintilie’s questioning occurs under the guise of the creation of a film; Laura’s emotional and sexual ventures occur exclusively under contract with sex workers; Tomas engages in touch solely during group therapy sessions. Never do the subjects have interactions bereft of a professional context. Their reliance on transactional methods for intimacy evokes Foucault’s newfound role of these interactions within repressed society: “[illegitimate sexualities are relegated] to a place where they could be reintegrated, if not into the circuits of production, at least those of profit. The brothel and the mental hospital would be those places of tolerance” (Foucault). This is reflected in the film’s color palette and the subjects’ clinical surroundings. Laura’s apartment is of modern design: white, oppressively austere, and consequentially devoid of personality–much like a hospital or office. This is not a place of care and living, but a place of business. Another question arises: does the transactional nature of their intimacy allow the subjects to evade any genuine emotional vulnerability?
When Pintilie is prompted to trade places with Laura–now sitting in front of the camera–she describes it as “a tough place to be;” a place where she is “looked at.” Tears well up in her eyes. Tomas identifies this feeling as “a wall to protect something from the inside coming out,” rather than defending something from coming in. We see Pintilie and her subjects struggle to place what they are feeling into words; language never suffices. Their breakthroughs are always embodied. For Laura, it takes the shape of dance; for Thomas, it’s sharing a bed with Laura. We could consider these expressions and admissions as progress; however, they remain isolated cases–far from sustainable solutions. Pintilie, on the other hand, is left questioning, using words. She has not found her answer, rather she considers herself “gradually destabilized.” She tries to come to terms with her state by quoting a friend: “Tell me how you were loved, to tell you how you love.” Pintilie implies her formative relationship with her parents is a potential explanation for her current love language–or lack of it. “The umbilical cord between us hasn’t actually been cut.”
What is being presented in Touch Me Not is therefore not a virulent strain of contemporary emotional alienation, but rather an inherited cycle of lovelessness. It is a purely individualized and situational matter for these subjects, not a general condition. Pintilie’s film supports this by including an array of emotionally “liberated” individuals alongside herself and her inhibited protagonists–the sex workers, intimacy coordinators, and some of the group therapy members are all “foils.” Pintilie observes these individuals with confoundment, asking them how they manage to be so “open.” One of them responds: “trust.” But how do you learn to trust?
In 2018, Pintilie’s film went on to win the top prize at the Berlinale. The reaction to the win was notably divided; some coined it the most controversial winner in the festival’s history. It was deemed “sterile,” “pretentious,” and “embarrassingly awful.” Conversely, it carried deep resonance for a select audience; evidenced by the film’s win and limited acclaim. That the film did not communicate with a large audience, however, might not be completely negative. If a majority of audiences are not able to identify with its subjects, the emotional and sexual repression in Pintilie’s film may not be quite as pervasive as her film posits. But Touch Me Not is not aiming to be “crowd-pleasing.” It is a niche film for those that need it. Paradoxically, it might also be for those who reject it outright–once again increasing its relevancy. We return to Foucault’s question: have we not liberated ourselves from a historically increasing societal sexual repression? Pintilie suggests: some of us.
Touch Me Not is currently streaming on MUBI.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. NY: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Deutsche Welle. “Opinion: Berlinale Jury Was Bold to Pick ‘Touch Me Not’: DW: 24.02.2018.” DW.COM, http://www.dw.com/en/opinion-berlinale-jury-was-bold-to-pick-touch-me-not/a-42729789.