Some fail to see what the big deal is.
Others view it as a complete revelation, an experience of liberation both from a cinematic and personal point of view. (Myself included.)
Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not is one of the most talked-about films of the year, after its surprising, underdog victory at the Berlinale 2018, winning both the Golden Bear and GWFF Best First Feature Award. The film that was in development for seven years, with many difficulties along the way, explores the different shapes and forms of intimacy in an approach that aims at deconstructing closely-held traditional beliefs about this concept, but also investigates how cinema functions within the parameters of fiction and documentary. Following a woman’s journey to release herself from her repulsion of intimacy, while examining people with non-normative body types and “atypical” ways to manifest sexuality, Touch Me Not is a work informed by Adina Pintilie’s complex, multi-layered and sophisticated approach towards cinema, one that is simultaneously rich in theoretical approaches, from Jacques Lacan to postmodern philosophers.
Pintilie is the first female Romanian filmmaker to ever compete in Berlin’s Main Competition and to also win its top prize. After the win, she and the people who share their experiences and the process in front of the camera – protagonist Laura Benson, Tómas Lemarquis, Christian Bayerlein, Grit Uhlemann, Hanna Hofmann and Seani Love – have been touring relentlessly to all major film festivals in Europe and North America, in a team that suspends traditional hierarchies in cinema and brings the subject matter outside the screening room, in a series of debates under the title of The Politics of Intimacy.
The following discussion took place in May 2018.
FD: The production phase of the film lasted for seven years, due to various circumstances. How did the project change over time? And how did you and your own relationship to it change along this period?
AP: If I were to summarize seven years in a few minutes… it began from this idea, that when I was twenty I thought I knew what intimacy was, what beauty was, how desire functioned. And during the next twenty years of my life, I realized that I actually didn’t know much at all, that all these notions were fluid, that reality was more complex than what I had been taught about intimacy. So this personal curiosity was the beginning, around 2010-2011, when I wanted to begin this journey of liberation, to get rid of everything that I had known and to rediscover what people are like, how they access intimacy in the most unexpected ways – ways which were different from what I had thought in the past.
FD: There were two main challenges. Investigating intimacy, that is so important yet so hard to talk about, because of taboos so ingrained in our attitude that they unconsciously affect our behavior. Another task was to explore cinematic language, to see which kind of expression represents the best method, the best formula to express this kind of research in an organic way. It isn’t fiction, nor documentary, nor experimental (at least, not according to classical definitions). It is an experiment in terms of language, of our lives, our souls, or bodies. It’s a fusion, a mix of reality and fiction that is oftentimes fluid, with both professional and non-professional actors… yet, I resist this term, actor. People; it doesn’t matter what their profession is.
AP: The fictional structure was rather a safety structure allowing us to explore difficult areas, areas which we would have been unable to explore, had we worked with the classical procedures of a documentary or a fiction film. If you are protected by the guise of a fictional character or situation, you are very free to explore personal terrain, areas which you would have otherwise never dared to approach, since here nobody has to know what is real and what is fictional. That was an understanding we all shared. Fiction is the structure, the mechanism, but what happens is real, on a human level. The interactions and emotional transformations are profoundly authentic. So the challenge was to construct a framework, a lab in which you give people the freedom to explore certain things, to initiate certain connections.
FD: A very interesting thing I have noticed in the film is that you seem to be working against this mythos, this formula of the director as an abstract, demiurgic dictator. The one that owns the masterplan, the one that has to be searched for, more or less intuitively, by the spectator – who unwittingly and problematically relegates the characters’ agency to the director’s will. You not only work against this, you also choose to question your own presence and motivation. Where did this need, that comes across as acute and emotional in the film, arise from? Saying: “I want you to know that I am here, I may not be impartial, but I’m also in the process of a transformation.”
AP: It was a very long journey. I was always there. The process began with a personal research, with my curiosity, my need to re-learn intimacy. Me as a catalyst of this process, I exist, I am what makes things move, what brings them together. Now, the apparatus, the director being present in the film, is not the focus of the film, that’s not the point. It’s the characters, this extraordinary world that they wish to communicate, setting their soul out in front of you, and sharing them with you, the viewer. From the very beginning, the film was motivated by this need to have a dialogue. All the persons with whom I’ve worked with have been searched specifically because of this – I wanted to find people who were also interested in exploring intimacy, but who were also profoundly willing to do it in front of a camera. Because, when you do that as part of a cinematographic process, you share it. It becomes an act of expression, a dialogue. That was very important for me, along with their individual motivations to enter the project.
So, from the very beginning, the idea was that the fourth wall was permanently fluid. Therefore, I needed this system with the teleprompter. It was very important for me that the person on screen and the one watching them would enter a direct dialogue. That is why the person had to look straight into the lens which was filming them – that is what the teleprompter offers. But the initial idea was not only to show the camera, the mechanism, everything that is “behind” the film, but to also feel that the people depicted are talking directly to you. However, what I noticed during editing was that, actually, the effect of this procedure was contrary to what I was hoping for – it was making the viewers exit their emotional influx. So I started asking myself why this happened, since my intention was to get people closer, but it was sort of a Brechtian distancing effect.
So I realized that the way in which we are taught to read cinema is so powerfully implanted into our thinking process, that every time you see something on screen – be it fiction or documentary – you enter the so-called state of suspension of disbelief. You start identifying so much that you break from yourself, you are no longer yourself, in your own body. You are there, in a world that is separate from yours, where you start to have this freedom to start fantasizing, to identify yourself. A separation of yourself from what you see. I wanted the opposite – a constant open channel, from an emotional point of view. The knowledge that the camera enables you to access an entire new world, through the very subjective gaze of the director and the camera, a sort of privileged access to a special world that wants to speak to you – and that was something which, in my point of view, the spectator had to be constantly aware of. That also means that you have to be aware of the camera itself, and to see how the teleprompter, as an object, is visibly constructed and made aware of. This way, you know the filter through which you are gazing into this world. But it’s not an active gaze of camera – it’s rather a witness, a channel. But what matters most are these miraculous people who take part in the film – I am more of a child that discovers how people relate. Look at Christian’s wonderful, splendid relationship with his own body, which inspired us all. Also his relationship with Grit is splendid. Hanna, too. I have so many things to say about that.
The last step was to situate my own presence in the film, at the emotional level. That happened during the process anyway, since it was a constant exchange of emotions. It was similar to psychotherapy, in a way – a process of relearning how to relate with the others. Through the mirroring process, through which you see others’ experiences and by means of that you recognize your own experiences, you start to understand them. Thus, by implication, I was supposed to be there, in the same position as the people I was filming.
I really enjoy this term – filmmakers –; that you are actually someone who makes a film. The term “director” has so many hierarchical implications, I resist this label, since it is not the way our film functioned during the shooting. It was teamwork – everyone was a creative contributor to the process.
FD: Relating to this concept of the mirror, to Lacan’s Other – its precise subjectivity, so the fact that you depict certain experiences that are profoundly intimate and, thus, subjective, without intervening in any way in what the characters say, or even feel – you avoid the process of alterization. For me this represents one of the great victories of this film; that you avoid labeling them as others, that you, as a spectator, are never tempted to see them as different. How did you achieve this, while also working against an entire tradition of representation in cinema, which did precisely the opposite?
AP: I intervene, but only at the level of structure. So, you’re talking about the so-called normalization of the non-normative. I personally don’t believe in categories. I’d be very happy if they ceased to exist – especially those which place people in a position of inferiority, of marginality. We are all human – it doesn’t matter how you appear from a physical point of view. I didn’t even use this notion in the film – I met people with whom I resonated, with whom I journeyed into a process. Now, the fact that this is a film about intimacy means that it’s implicitly also a film about the body and about how people relate to it. At one point, I was discussing the concept of queerness – in the sense of difference – and I arrived to the realization that life itself is fundamentally queer. It’s very different to what norms tell us that it is – it’s so diverse!
FD: There is also this distinction in philosophy, for Husserl, between Leib and Körper [the lived body and the physical body]. The body as a subject or as an object.
AP: I don’t believe in that one, neither, never did. Christian would have many interesting things to say about that. I think of the body as a whole – there is no distinction between body and soul. The soul is an inherent part of the body. This is who we are – with our emotions, our spirituality, our sensations, our desires. This dichotomy – which has been forced onto us – comes from Christianity, I think, this schism. In pre-Christian societiey, pagan, if you will, there was this concept of animism – that everything is inhabited by a soul, which some today call energy. I think that the distinction between body and soul is related to the shame, the complexes, the guilt attached to the notions of intimacy, sexuality and corporeality. At one point, if I recall correctly, [Georges] Bataille said that humankind’s existential drama began at the precise moment when it had learned that the smell of its own secretions is disgusting. Those are also a part of us. Intimacy is so profoundly normal, it is such a big part of our lives, but it’s still so hard for us to discuss it.
FD: What were the things that you, and the persons with whom worked with, discovered during this process? What is the main takeaway? What could be one for the audience?
AP: The film began both as an investigation of intimacy, as well as a means to communicate with the audience. As you can see, they took on a great deal of risk during this process, so that is why I would propose the viewer to accept this invitation to enter a dialogue. At least, to accept it – afterwards, just as in the film, “all emotions are welcome.” It’s interesting that the film works as a mirror, you could feel enthusiasm at some screenings, in the audience. At our first screening in Romania, we had a standing ovation; it was such a warm welcome. People started crying as they heard Christian’s story at the Q&A. A fifty-year-old lady came to me after the screening and held my hand for a long time, with tears in her eyes. She said, “Thank you, Adina. I am Laura.” I invited her to come to our round table discussion at the festival, but she declined. “I can’t talk about these things,” she said. “But this has been very important to me.”
I realized something, something that is very much connected to the reason for which I started this process of research. I, myself, had faced this –I had realized that what I thought intimacy meant was very different from what happens in real life. That is when you start asking yourself – “Hey, is there something wrong with me? Am I wrong? Am I unable to function in this aspect?”
FD: Or, “Am I asexual? Am I actually attracted to the opposite sex? What should I do now?”
AP: And the problem is not even asking yourself if you are one way or another – but even more so, you live with the sensation that if you don’t correspond to a norm, something is wrong with you. There are so many taboos related to intimacy, fear and shame that we inherit through education, from our schools, our families – it becomes hard to talk about. It’s difficult to reach people who are the same as you are, who can validate your difference from the norm. So it’s very important to witness that others can relate to intimacy, to their own bodies and genders – because gender is fluid, every one of us goes through several iterations of gender. This dialogue helps you see that you are fine the way you are. It’s fine to be different from the norm. And then you are able to look at the others and understand that they are passing through the same thing, that they are human, too. “You are another me” – that was the salute in Mayan civilizations. If you obtain this awareness and understanding of yourself and the others, if you develop your capacity to be empathetic, I think it can help a lot.