Intimacy, Gender Trouble, and the Challenge of Being Human: My Films from the 2018 Berlinale Film Festival

Touch Me Not      Director: Adina Pintilie


And the Golden Bear goes to…

Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 5.18.51 pm…Touch Me Not, a film about intimacy and the ghosts of our sexual closets by Romanian director Adina Pintilie. Should this film have won the Golden Bear? I didn’t see enough of the films to judge, but Touch Me Not is one of the films that I hope will be shown at Melbourne’s International Film Festival (MIFF) later this year.

Like the 2017 Golden Bear winner, On Body and Soul, by director Ildikó Enyedi, Touch Me Not is about the passionate connection between the body as a site of sexual pleasure and repression and our sense of self and perception of the world around us. Laura Benson plays a middle-aged woman navigating her inchoate desires through a series of male prostitutes, each with his own understanding of desire and the forces that hinder and enable us to enjoy it.

Benson’s sexual uptightness is brought into comic relief by these male philosophers of the body, which includes a wonderfully authentic performance by Hanna Hofman, playing herself as a German transvestite with a love of a Brahms – a composer whose disappointments in love nevertheless found exultant expression in melancholy music. As Benson remarks, 90% of her didn’t want to be filmed in this quasi-documentary, but 10% of her did, and that 10% was enough to make her go through with it.

And this might be why films that delve into the complexities of sexuality and the difficulties of authentically relating to others find such resonance with audiences and film critics alike, even when, as with Touch Me Not, the technical elements of the film are in equal measure clumsy and amateurish.

Pintilie’s exploration of these themes focuses on the emotional journey of sexuality revealing the illusion that beautiful bodies somehow avoid the emotional pains of those born with bodies that defy socially constructed norms.

Christian Bayerlein plays ‘a differently-abled man’, who despite having limited free movement possesses a talent for emotional articulacy and self-acceptance. There have been a wave of European films focusing on the lives of people with disability, but Pintilie explores novel territory by portraying the sexuality of a so-called disabled person as no more or less complicated than that of so-called non-disabled people.

The parts of the film that disclose the emotional stories and journeys of the characters are far more compelling than the sexually explicit scenes that open the film and deliver us to the conclusion via a detour into the world of S&M. More time spent dwelling on these aspects could have resulted in a richer profile of the two main protagonists.

Nevertheless, one of the highlights of this film is its novel engagement with cinematic genre. In this case, all of the actors in Touch Me Not were playing versions of themselves, exploring their own relationship with sex and intimacy.

Pintilie addresses her motivations for making the film in dialogue with Benson’s character throughout the film, which proved to be an interesting and revealing cinematic experiment. I also found the contrast between the different nationalities, accents, and temperaments of the actors enjoyable, subtly suggesting the tight link between sexuality and culture and the cultural tendencies that insidiously shape our sense of self.

Even so, at times the film wandered into clichéd territory, perhaps most obviously by having an apparently sexually repressed British woman as its central character, somewhat reminiscent of the Freudian tendency to focus on the craziness of women who reject conventional models of sexuality rather than turning the gaze on men. The film’s male characters added some balance to this, but I was still left wondering whether the film overall reinforced rather than challenged conventional cinematic representations of the female sexual body.


L’Animale    |    Director: Katharina Mueckstein 


Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 4.57.47 pm
Odysseus’ cave from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

If the challenge of intimacy is a source of paradoxical alienation for the modern subject, coming of age with gender is an equally perplexing minefield. This is the theme of L’Animale, a pastoral coming-of-age film and perhaps Austria’s answer to Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical tragicomic, Fun Home.

If you’ve read the comic, you probably don’t need to read any further. If you haven’t, embrace your fear, come out of the closet, and stop being afraid of dark caves. Odysseus had nothing to fear, except fear itself! That’s the message of the film as it alternates between the denuded landscape of the quarry and the lush hidden joys of the forest, between hyper-masculinity and connections that go much deeper. 

Mueckstein’s take on sexual liberation is shot with tenderness and humour with Sophie Stockinger giving a solid performance as the innocent and not-so-innocent Mati whose sexual awakening in conservative rural Austria is not without its challenges. Much like Bechdel’s comic, and many other coming-of-age films, a schoolroom reading of an inspiring literary text is used as a frame for the film’s main themes.

Meuckstein’s postmodern play with cinematic imagery matches the bright excesses of youth and young love, but perhaps I am just not quite European enough (read Eurovision) to have enjoyed the emotional climax in which the lead actors sing along to an 80’s pop ballad by Franco Battiato, which also gives the film its title. These stylistic choices aside, L’Animale is a fun-filled film with lots of symbolism, including dark tunnels, caves, and dirt bikes. Bring it on!


Überall wo wir sind (Everywhere We Are)   |   Director: Veronika Kaserer


Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 5.22.15 pmIf intimacy and gender aren’t enough to leave you wondering who you are, a confrontation with the ineffable due to a treacherous cancer probably will. Überall wo wir sind, a sad and yet touching documentary, details the process of reckoning a family undergoes as they come to accept that their son, Heiko, a 29-year-old Dance Teacher, will die of the cancer that has left him an amputee and that has plagued him for the last seven years.

Director Veronika Kaserer has stated that the difficulties of making this documentary arose from the fragmentary nature of the family’s experience. However, the film’s composite character adds to its authenticity as viewers slowly come to accept that the humorous, straight-talking young man they meet at the beginning of the film is slowly dying.

The documentary tactfully interweaves original footage from family videos and photos with sensitively composed interviews with Heiko’s family and close friends, each with a distinctive relationship to Heiko and a unique way of processing their grief. Despite the heaviness of the documentary’s theme, it is infused with tenderness and humour, particularly in the scenes showing Heiko’s strong bond with his father, which provides a kind of gravitational centre for the film.

There are not many films that so honestly approach such a difficult topic, leaving space for the unsayable elements of permanent loss at the same time as providing space for reflection on the meaning of our lives as we nevertheless keep going on after the death of someone close.

As one of the palliative care attendants states, ‘most people die alone’, but in this documentary we witness a young man ‘crossing over’ alone, and yet doing so in the presence of people who have been forever touched by his too short life. It was Heiko’s wish that this documentary be made and in granting audiences the opportunity to travel with his family through the final stages of his illness, he has left us with much more than can ever be put into words.

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To hear Katharina Mueckstein talk about L’Animale check out this clip (in German):