The camera, tweezer-close, skims the surface of an unidentified body, the skin and hairs like a pale wasteland, a curled appendage lies in rest like a sleeping giant, and there’s the atmospheric sound of light breathing. It’s an opening that makes it clear Romanian filmmaker Adina Pintilie is in a zeroing-in frame of mind with her offbeat, intellectualized study of sexuality, identity and bodies, “Touch Me Not.”
Her unflinching inquiry is part fiction, part reality, with a dash of personal essay, and asks us to think of intimacy as the ultimate expression of empathy, but one that starts inward, requires active participation and thought, and maybe even group work. In the touch-therapy sessions at a medical facility, the exercises get right to it. The white-clad participants we encounter include individuals with physical challenges, or in the case of gentle, shy Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis), a condition (alopecia) that sparks crippling self-consciousness. There’s talking, sure, but also strangers gently caressing each other’s faces with each other’s eyes closed, an intoning moderator delicately imploring everyone to think of their partner’s features as a “new landscape.”
Watching these sessions from a hallway window is Laura (Laura Benson), a walled-up middle-aged woman who is there to visit an infirm male patient whose relationship to her is never explained, but which clearly adds to her emotional distress. Ready to deal with her own closeness issues — after being rebuffed for a friendly chat by her standing male prostitute appointment — she looks for a new partner online.
With her new escort hires, played by real sex workers, Laura primarily asks, watches and listens, a combination of scientist and patient. Talky transgender German Hanna (Hanna Hofmann) tries to bring out Laura’s playfulness regarding role-playing and sexuality, while a soft-voiced, bearlike Australian man (Seani Love) introduces her to BDSM techniques that play with boundaries and reactions.
Adding a further layer of personalization to this commingling of actors in character and non-professionals is that Laura’s interactions are being observed by director Pintilie herself through a device attached to a film camera. Laura is on one level the director’s subject — she and Pintilie talk after each encounter, hashing out their feelings about it — but also Pintilie’s conduit to a freeing world of healthful connection and freeing self-identification, as the filmmaker reveals when she speaks for herself about her own intimacy issues.
If it all sounds a bit abstract and archly realized, it is, due in part to occasionally disruptive sound effects and music cues, which feel more arty than organic, and design choices — like all that antiseptic white — that seem more distracting than aesthetically resonant. But in the overall, “Touch Me Not,” which won last year’s Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, is fairly mesmerizing as a mindful curio that blends performance and honesty, artifice and openness, to achieve a kind of inviting clarity about the healing power of bodily contact. Pintilie has a way of nudging the strangeness of her fiction/documentary hybridization so that your engagement isn’t predicated on narrative catharsis, but simply a desire for the continued frankness of it all.
Which makes her pocket ace for the movie’s themes a man with spinal muscular atrophy named Christian (Christian Bayerlein), a figure in the touch therapy scenes — he is Tómas’ assigned face-touching partner — who speaks with quietly stirring articulateness about the empowerment he feels as someone who doesn’t allow his disability to affect his life as a sexual being capable of deep connection with others. That Pintilie prominently features Christian with his girlfriend Grit (Grit Uhlemann) among the patrons of a sex club Tómas visits actually rescues this unabashedly adult scene from its thickly graphic showiness. For all the talk of sexuality in the film, these two — whether being erotic for the camera or simply affectionate (Grit smiling as she gives Christian an ooh-worthy scalp rub) — become the movie’s most candidly tender heart, its best example of intimacy as a worthy form of meaningful communication.
‘Touch Me Not’
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: Starts March 1, Laemmle Glendale