Direc­tor Adina Pin­tilie

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY TARA BRADY ■ Touch Me Not ison­re­leasenow

Direc­tor Adina Pin­tilie’s de­but film ‘Touch Me Not’ blurs the bound­ary be­tween fic­tion and re­al­ity, an ap­proach that has divided opin­ion

The Ber­li­nale has a long his­tory of re­ward­ing con­tro­ver­sial or dif­fi­cult films. Over the past decade, the fes­ti­val has handed over gongs to Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Pablo Lar­raín’s The Club, José Padilha’s Elite Squad and Ildikó Enyedi’s tremen­dous On Body and Soul. Still, ear­lier this year, when Ro­ma­nian direc­tor Adina Pin­tilie’s fea­ture de­but, Touch Me Not, took home the Golden Bear from the Ber­lin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, sev­eral com­men­ta­tors seemed to en­tirely lose their minds.

Pin­tilie’s ex­per­i­men­tal study of sex­ual and phys­i­cal in­ti­macy was al­ready re­garded as a con­tro­ver­sial in­clu­sion in the Ber­li­nale’s main com­pe­ti­tion be­fore it was named best film by a jury led by the Ger­man direc­tor Tom Tyk­wer.

Its sub­se­quent tri­umph was greeted with dis­may by sev­eral prom­i­nent crit­ics, in­clud­ing Peter Brad­shaw in the Guardian, who com­pared the win to the vic­to­ries of Brexit and Don­ald Trump and, in an acer­bic take­down, dis­missed the film “. . . which del­uged me in a tidal wave of de­pres­sion at how em­bar­rass­ingly aw­ful it was, at its medi­ocrity, its hu­mour­less self-re­gard, its fatu­ous and shal­low ap­proach to its os­ten­si­ble theme of in­ti­macy, and the clumsy way all this was sneak­ily elided with Euro-hard­core cliches about BDSM, al­ter­na­tive sex­u­al­i­ties, fetishism and ex­hi­bi­tion­ism”.

In the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter, Deb­o­rah Young praised the same pic­ture for be­ing “beau­ti­fully crafted with sure-handed so­phis­ti­ca­tion”.

Pin­tilie is not overly sur­prised by the po­lar­ity of much of the crit­i­cism.

“Im­me­di­ately af­ter the Ber­li­nale, there has been a surge of di­vi­sive feed­backs, mainly from film crit­ics and jour­nal­ists, cov­er­ing the en­tire spec­trum, from out­right praise to very neg­a­tive,” says the film­maker. “It’s very in­ter­est­ing to no­tice, though, dur­ing the past months of trav­el­ling with the film around the world, that ac­tu­ally the re­ac­tions of the reg­u­lar view­ers are not so divided, that we en­counter a very warm, emo­tional re­cep­tion ev­ery­where we go. And it’s fas­ci­nat­ing and heart­warm­ing to see how peo­ple open up emo­tion­ally af­ter the screen­ings and start to share with us their own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and feel­ings.

Even the most ven­omous de­trac­tors of Touch Me Not would have to con­cede that the film is a unique view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Poised some­where be­tween drama and doc­u­men­tary, the project piv­ots around Laura Ben­son, a fiftysome­thing English ac­tor who is see­ing a num­ber of sex ther­a­pists in or­der to deal with her is­sues with in­ti­macy. Staged or recre­ated ther­apy ses­sions in­tro­duce other par­tic­i­pants, in­clud­ing Tó­mas Le­mar­quis, the dis­tinc­tive Ice­landic ac­tor who ap­peared in Snow­piercer and Blade Run­ner 2049, and who lost all his hair at the age of 13 to alope­cia uni­ver­salis. Le­mar­quis’s ex­changes with the se­verely dis­abled Chris­tian Bay­er­lein, who lives with spinal mus­cu­lar at­ro­phy (SMA), make for most af­fect­ing scenes.

“Chris­tian has one of the most har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ships with his own body, even if he’s mostly un­able to move,” says Pin­tilie. “And his re­la­tion­ship with Grit, his part­ner, their pro­gres­sive views on in­ti­macy, the way they ex­plore their sex­u­al­ity, have been a per­ma­nent source of joy and in­spi­ra­tion for all of us. And the re­la­tion­ship which de­vel­oped, dur­ing our process, be­tween Chris­tian and Tó­mas was deeply au­then­tic and had a ma­jor trans­for­ma­tive im­pact on the lat­ter. Chris­tian had a strong emo­tional mo­ti­va­tion to be part of our jour­ney, which he shared with us from the very be­gin­ning.”

The same wave­length

Bay­er­lein, a dis­abled rights ac­tivist with a blog on is­sues of dis­abil­ity and in­ti­macy (kiss­abil­ity.de), is but one prod­uct of an un­con­ven­tional cast­ing process. Start­ing in 2013, Pin­tilie be­gan search­ing out peo­ple on “the same wave­length”. The cast, a mix of ac­tors and non-pro­fes­sion­als, were en­cour­aged to keep video di­aries. Through dis­cus­sions on Skype, Pin­tilie de­vel­oped the themes and scenes they would later shoot.

“A group of gifted and brave peo­ple took the risk to em­bark to­gether with me in an of­ten very chal­leng­ing emo­tional jour­ney, ex­ist­ing in the blurred area be­tween their real bi­ogra­phies and their fic­tion­alised ones. They had the great courage to share with us, with the cam­era, some of the most vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas of their in­ti­mate lives. We worked with a fu­sion of per­sonal sto­ries and fic­tional el­e­ments, ex­plor­ing pro­ce­dures such as: meet­ings be­tween real char­ac­ters and quasi-fic­tional ones, fam­ily con­stel­la­tions, video di­aries, re-en­act­ments of mem­o­ries and dreams, stag­ing re­al­ity etc. We cre­ated a sort of ‘lab­o­ra­tory’ in which fic­tion of­ten func­tioned as a safe space, a pro­tec­tive struc­ture that brought us to­gether and al­lowed us to safely ex­plore sen­si­tive ar­eas, with an au­then­tic­ity we may have not oth­er­wise ac­cessed through the tra­di­tional ap­proaches of doc­u­men­tary or fic­tion.”

Pin­tilie’s thor­ough and fas­ci­nat­ing process has also at­tracted such peo­ple as Seani Love, the 2015 re­cip­i­ent of the UK’s “Best Sex Worker of the Year”, who pro­vides a mix­ture of sex­ual ser­vices, BDSM, tantra and Jun­gian psy­chother­apy; and Hanna Hoff­mann, a trans­gen­der real es­tate agent and ac­tivist for the rights of sex work­ers and sex­ual mi­nori­ties. To­gether, they ex­pe­ri­ence var­i­ous de­grees of cathar­sis.

“Each of the pro­tag­o­nists goes through a series of trans­for­ma­tive en­coun­ters,” says Pin­tilie. “For Laura, the key meet­ings are with the two es­corts, Hanna Hoff­mann and Seani Love. Sex work is an­other as­pect re­gard­ing which I have changed my per­spec­tive. I dis­cov­ered the com­plex and of­ten ther­a­peu­tic forms of per­sonal ex­plo­ration that sex­ual ser­vices can take. And that peo­ple have many mo­ti­va­tions to prac­tice sex work, other than just the fi­nan­cial one. Hanna’s story, for in­stance, is highly rel­e­vant in terms of this process of search­ing for in­ner free­dom.”

“It started from the premise – which I’m also men­tion­ing at one point in the film – that when I was 20 I thought I knew ev­ery­thing about in­ti­macy, how re­la­tion­ships work, about eroti­cism, beauty, body,” she says. “To­day, af­ter years of tri­als and tribu­la­tions, all those ideas, which used to be so clear back then, seem to have lost their def­i­ni­tion and grown more com­plex and un­set­tlingly con­tra­dic­tory.”

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Direc­tor Adina Pin­tilie on the set of her 2018 Golden Bear-win­ning Touch Me Not.

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