Adina Pintilie’s “Touch Me Not,” a feature debut that won the Golden Bear in Berlin this year and plays in Horizons at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, has divided critics and audiences with its unconventional approach to exploring intimacy and its refusal to fit into narrative, documentary or reality genres. The Romanian director and screenwriter says her North Star during the admittedly confusing production process was a strict adherence to the mission of discovering the countless ways in which people connect and establish or break comfort boundaries.
Did your conception of “Touch Me Not” change as you began to film and work with your remarkable actors and non-actors?
“Touch Me Not” is, and has been from the beginning, a personal research on intimacy. When I was 20, I thought I knew everything there is to know on this subject, on relationships, attraction, beauty, bodies. 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.
“Touch Me Not” started as a reflection of this subjective journey, driven by my curiosity to discover how other people experience this challenging aspect of their life. Born out of a long-term research process, the film grew on the fluid border between reality and fiction, working with a mix of professional and non-professional cast.
How did you go about assembling your cast, mixing actors with non-professionals?
A wonderful group of gifted and courageous characters ventured together with me in this research, existing in the blurred area between their real biographies and their fictionalized ones. We explored procedures such as family constellation, video diaries, reenactments of memories and dreams, staging reality, etcetera.
We created a sort of “laboratory” in which fiction often functioned as a protective space – that allowed us to safely explore some of the most vulnerable areas of our intimacy, with an authenticity we may have not otherwise accessed through the usual approaches of documentary or fiction. The shape of the film changed organically along this complex process of self-exploration.
What was the greatest challenge in getting this film finished over the seven years you put into it?
The fact that, in many ways, the film doesn’t abide to classic rules, that we explore taboo domains of intimacy and we do it in ways that reject labels and conventions of the cinematographic language — that made the entire process of creating this film very challenging: be it financing, casting, production, up until today, when it creates such strongly divided reactions, being at the same time praised and rejected, loved and feared by both critics and the audience.
You have said your cast took many risks in opening themselves up fully for the film. How did you work with them to reach this level of trust?
We constantly dealt with unpredictable elements of our interior worlds with vulnerabilities, emotions, our bodies, our strange reactions. It wasn’t easy for anybody. I started this process in 2013 with a long casting period, in which I looked for people that could meet me on some special frequency, who would be interested in exploring intimacy in similar ways with myself.
Then we began discovering one another, with video diaries that we discussed later, using them as material for later developments of scenes and a loose structure of the script. It was an essential period in getting to know each other and building trust, in which the protagonists started to familiarize themselves with the camera in some of the most intimate moments of their lives.
You’re also dedicated to establishing that differently abled people have the same needs for intimacy as everyone. Was this a high priority for you from the start?
There are lots of types of bodies that differ from the classical norm of beauty. For me, Christian, the protagonist with spinal muscular atrophy, is a superb human being and a beautiful body, but he’s totally different from the norm. As it is a film about intimacy, “Touch Me Not” is implicitly a film about the body, about the subjective experience of your own body and the way you perceive the bodies of others.
Christian has one of the most harmonious relationships with his own body, even if he’s mostly unable to move. And his relationship with Grit, his partner, their vision of intimacy, the way they explore their sexuality, have been a permanent source of joy and inspiration for all of us.