Ninth- and tenth-day coverage of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival with reviews of Touch Me NotMuseum, Kim Ki-duk’s Human, Space, Time and Human and the German In the Aisles

Touch Me Not 

68th Berlin International Film Festival

Touch Me Not is a film that left me both fas­ci­nat­ed and un­com­fort­able. Shot with­out an ac­tu­al screen­play and edit­ed from 250 hours of un­script­ed raw footage, this is a bold nar­ra­tive ex­per­i­ment that blurs the line be­tween doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion while forc­ing the au­di­ence to look very close­ly and in­ti­mate­ly at un­con­ven­tion­al faces and naked bod­ies in ways we are not used to. No won­der I saw a few peo­ple walk­ing out of the Berli­nale screen­ing I at­tend­ed, as it must be hard for some to al­low them­selves to be pushed into an ex­pe­ri­ence that throws them out of their com­fort zone. Those peo­ple will say they don’t need to see what a film like this wants to rub in their faces, but per­haps that is pre­cise­ly the point.

When Touch Me Not be­gins, we see the cam­era glid­ing along the white skin and dark hair of a male naked body, al­most touch­ing it and ba­si­cal­ly il­lus­trat­ing Lau­ra U. Marks’s con­cept of “hap­tic vi­su­al­i­ty.” We learn this is part of a re­search project car­ried out by di­rec­tor Ad­i­na (Ad­i­na Pin­tilie), who was giv­en per­mis­sion by Lau­ra (Lau­ra Ben­son), an Eng­lish­woman in her 50s, to in­ter­view her in her bed­room and ob­serve her ef­forts to deal with her trau­ma of in­ti­ma­cy with the help of ther­a­pists and oth­er peo­ple, in­clud­ing Tu­dor (Tó­mas Lemar­quis) and Chris­t­ian (Chris­t­ian Bay­er­lein), who each have their own phys­i­cal and/or psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pair­ments. To­geth­er, they seek to ex­plore the many dif­fer­ent facets of their tac­tile desires.

Ad­i­na (both di­rec­tor and char­ac­ter) is aware of the dis­com­fort cre­at­ed by ex­pos­ing our­selves to the in­ti­ma­cy of oth­er peo­ple. We feel awk­ward and em­bar­rassed, as if in­vad­ing the char­ac­ters’ per­son­al space with close-ups and the use of shal­low fo­cus. Lau­ra is usu­al­ly kept in the cor­ner of the frame and out of fo­cus, which re­in­forces her emo­tion­al dis­con­nec­tion and mis­place­ment. We see a man mas­tur­bat­ing ex­plic­it­ly for the cam­era; a fun­ny peep show of a trans sex work­er; and even a beau­ti­ful mo­ment when the “hap­tic” cam­era trav­els along Tudor’s hair­less body in one di­rec­tion and then re­turns in the op­po­site di­rec­tion fol­low­ing Adina’s body, mak­ing us feel as though their bod­ies were one and we are all alike naked.

But the film also chal­lenges our own guilt by forc­ing us to face Christian’s phys­i­cal de­for­mi­ties and hear him talk about his sex­u­al life. Tudor’s re­pul­sion when look­ing at him will be cer­tain­ly shared by most view­ers, and there is some­thing here that com­pels us to con­front the ori­gin of this feel­ing. What is beau­ty af­ter all? What pre­vents us from seek­ing beau­ty in that which re­pels us? And why are we more drawn to a gor­geous cou­ple en­gag­ing in dom­i­nance sex­u­al role­play than a hand­i­capped cou­ple mak­ing love? These ques­tions seem to hov­er over these char­ac­ters as they face their dis­sat­is­fac­tion with their bod­ies — bod­ies which they re­al­ize are just masks we wear. “I don’t care that I don’t have hair, it is just one mask less,” Tu­dor says.

Like­wise, we are con­stant­ly re­mind­ed that this is part of a project and a film, some­times with a peek be­hind Adina’s cam­era or when we see some­one walk with a tri­pod in front of the screen. At one key mo­ment, Tu­dor looks straight at us and says “I think we have an au­di­ence.” All this is edit­ed quite flu­id­ly, and the tense, un­com­fort­able score in­creas­es the re­sponse that Pin­tilie is seek­ing to ob­tain from the au­di­ence. For a film that wants to un­dress its char­ac­ters naked and vul­ner­a­ble, it is strange that we are nev­er open­ly told who Ad­i­na is ad­dress­ing in her voiceover or what ex­act­ly made Lau­ra hate her fa­ther. De­spite that, this is a beau­ti­ful film about the fear of touch­ing and be­ing touched, and open­ing up to some­one else.

Museum (Museo)

On Christ­mas Eve in 1985, 140 Mayan and Aztec ar­ti­facts were stolen from the Na­tion­al Mu­se­um of An­thro­pol­o­gy in Mex­i­co. The thieves crawled into the base­ment through an air con­di­tion­ing duct, un­no­ticed by nine po­lice guards, and man­aged to open sev­en glass dis­play cas­es in three ex­hi­bi­tion halls and steal the most valu­able portable ob­jects from the mu­se­um, lead­ing ex­perts to as­sume that this was the work of a so­phis­ti­cat­ed gang of pro­fes­sion­als. But four years lat­er, when the Fed­er­al Po­lice re­cov­ered most of the stolen gold, jade, turquoise and ob­sid­i­an ob­jects, they ar­rest­ed one of the two pur­port­ed thieves and found out the rob­bers were in fact am­a­teurs — two vet­eri­nary school dropouts who had planned the heist for six months.

This un­usu­al sto­ry that shocked the whole of Mex­i­co is told in Alon­so Ruiz­pala­cios’s Mu­se­um, an adap­ta­tion — or “a repli­ca of the orig­i­nal,” as the film puts it — that wants to be an amus­ing heist movie and also a char­ac­ter study, yet it works more as one than the oth­er. The style brings to mind the old ca­per films of the ‘60s and ‘70s (the open­ing cred­its, the score and split screens), but with a mod­ern feel to it, es­pe­cial­ly in the fast edit­ing and dy­nam­ic scene tran­si­tions (like the cut­ting of a wire giv­ing place to a plunger be­ing pulled out of a sy­ringe bar­rel). Mu­se­um has style and en­er­gy, and it is nice to see how it uses still frames in quick suc­ces­sion to show us the steps of the heist, as well as the use of si­lence to build tension.

In fact, Ruiz­pala­cios proves on many oc­ca­sions that he is a very tal­ent­ed di­rec­tor, like when he slow­ly moves his cam­era up to a high­er an­gle in a close-up that shows thief Juan (Gael Gar­cía Bernal) be­ing told the pieces are un­sellable (thus mak­ing him look pow­er­less). Juan is por­trayed as a young man ob­sessed with Mesoamer­i­can cul­ture and tired of a con­ser­v­a­tive mid­dle-class fam­i­ly that en­joys mock­ing him at Christ­mas din­ner. The film does a sub­tle job ex­am­in­ing his mo­ti­va­tions, like when we see his fas­ci­na­tion with cliff divers in Aca­pul­co or when he wets his bed af­ter hav­ing a vi­sion of his fa­ther — not to men­tion a scene in which he ba­si­cal­ly kiss­es his own re­flec­tion on the glass dis­play case that pro­tects the jade mask of Pakal.

More in­ter­est­ing is that Mu­se­um doesn’t over­look the irony that lies in the fact that there is no arche­ol­o­gy with­out steal­ing, and that these thieves are not so dif­fer­ent from those who ob­tain and sell ar­ti­facts clan­des­tine­ly with the lame ex­cuse that these pieces must be “pro­tect­ed” in a mu­se­um. But while the film works quite well in its first half, it gets lost lat­er with sit­u­a­tions that have no ac­tu­al con­se­quence, like Juan los­ing the pieces (only to find them im­me­di­ate­ly af­ter) or men­tion­ing a time when his friend Ben­jamin (Leonar­do Or­tiz­gris) al­most blind­ed some­one and he took the blame for him, which is a piece of in­for­ma­tion that just feels unnecessary.

Mu­se­um is even a bit clunky some­times, with an an­noy­ing nar­ra­tion that needn’t be there and a weak sense of hu­mor that could have been a lot bet­ter (“Heaven’s Gates are closed to you” is the worst), but still, it is a pass­able ca­per that man­ages to be amusing.

Human, Space, Time and Human (Inkan, gongkan, sikan grigo inkan) 

One of the con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing the Berli­nale this year has been the in­clu­sion of Kim Ki-duk’s lat­est Hu­man, Space, Time and Hu­man in the pro­gram fol­low­ing an ac­cu­sa­tion of sex­u­al as­sault made by an ac­tress against the di­rec­tor. The vic­tim, who pre­ferred not to dis­close her iden­ti­ty, ac­cused him of slap­ping her three times and forc­ing her to per­form un­script­ed nude sex scenes. Need­less to say, Kim be­came a tar­get of the #MeToo anti-sex­u­al vi­o­lence cam­paign when the fes­ti­val (which boast­ed their sup­port to the move­ment) was ac­cused of hypocrisy for car­ry­ing out their ini­tial de­ci­sion on the ba­sis that the al­le­ga­tions had been dis­missed for lack of evidence.

But what puz­zles me most is: if the fes­ti­val want­ed to val­ue the art, not the artist — which would at least be un­der­stand­able — then why both­er to of­fer a plat­form to such an abysmal, loath­some and moral­ly re­pel­lent piece of crap that has ab­solute­ly no re­deem­ing val­ue whatsoever?

Writ­ten by Kim him­self, the film is di­vid­ed into four chap­ters (the four nouns in the aw­ful ti­tle) and takes place en­tire­ly on a ship whose des­ti­na­tion has no im­por­tance. There, we are in­tro­duced to a gallery of char­ac­ters: an evil rich Sen­a­tor who wants to be Pres­i­dent and his son; a Japan­ese straight cou­ple; a group of trou­ble­mak­ers whose hor­rid leader quick­ly be­comes the Sen­a­tor’s right hand; a silent old man who seems to live on board the ship col­lect­ing dirt; and so on. See, this is sup­posed to be an ALLEGORY (cap­i­tal let­ters), with the ship clear­ly rep­re­sent­ing hu­man so­ci­ety di­vid­ed into class­es in some sort of Lord of the Flies scenario.

But Kim is no Dar­ren Aronof­sky, and so his piti­ful at­tempt at an al­le­go­ry comes off as hor­ri­bly preachy in all the worst ways. In fact, Kim is best known for works in which char­ac­ters speak lit­tle to noth­ing, but now he does the op­po­site, fill­ing this junk with end­less ex­pos­i­to­ry di­a­logue that feels in­suf­fer­ably rep­e­ti­tious and proves that writ­ing lines is not his forte. Plus, the cou­ple played by Joe Oda­giri and Mina Fu­jii speak Japan­ese the en­tire time and every­one else in Ko­re­an, yet they all un­der­stand each oth­er per­fect­ly as if they spoke the same lan­guage — a weird de­ci­sion that may have had a pur­pose in Dream (2008) but here is only gratuitous.

Then, af­ter we wit­ness a gang rape, the ship be­comes su­per­nat­u­ral­ly sus­pend­ed in the sky with no radar. “Did this ever hap­pen be­fore?” some­one asks in one of the most laugh­able lines ever. The Sen­a­tor and his mili­tia of lack­eys take over the ship, de­clare mar­tial law and de­cide they get to have the food. Every­thing is as sub­tle as a pink ele­phant danc­ing the Macare­na on a pi­ano, and from then on, we fol­low in­ter­minable dis­cus­sions about food and a “poor” male in con­flict for se­cret­ly rap­ing a woman (no kid­ding). Oth­ers look for weapons on the ship to over­throw the “regime” even though they take for­ev­er to take any ac­tion af­ter they find grenades (no shit).

All that is told in a sea of re­dun­dant di­a­logue — ap­par­ent­ly for those who are blind or men­tal­ly im­paired — in­clud­ing the likes of “You scared me,” “Why are you so cru­el?” or even a ridicu­lous “WHYYY?” when Eve (Fu­jii) re­al­izes she is preg­nant. It is hard not to laugh ei­ther at non­sen­si­cal gems such as “If you eat me and live, I will also live” when can­ni­bal­ism kicks in (hell, yes). And if Kim’s di­rec­tion hits rock bot­tom with a pa­thet­ic grenade ex­plo­sion and a scene in which day be­comes night in just a few takes, his script is full of in­co­her­ence as well, like the vil­lains locked in a room and show­ing up free only mo­ments after.

Even worse is Kim’s pro-life moral­i­ty full of preachy garbage about “wait­ing for God’s will” and with Eve de­cid­ing in less than a sec­ond that her baby (“a gift from you men”) must sur­vive. In fact, Kim’s cyn­i­cism is so grotesque that he shows women let­ting them­selves be groped by an­i­mal­is­tic men and Eve en­joy­ing be­ing raped a sec­ond time by Adam (Keun-Suk Jang) (who, for some rea­son, speaks in Japan­ese with her). As I said, Kim is not Aronof­sky — he is more like M. Night Shya­malan, get­ting worse and worse with each new film and mak­ing me even ques­tion my own judg­ment about his pre­vi­ous works.

And this time, by jus­ti­fy­ing rape as some­thing com­plete­ly nat­ur­al and hu­man, he man­aged to make me be­lieve what his de­trac­tors say about him: that he’s also a de­spi­ca­ble hu­man be­ing, with his last shot as al­most in­dis­putable evidence.

In the Aisles (In den Gängen) 

In the Aisles is the kind of film that clear­ly doesn’t have that much to say (or ap­par­ent­ly has no idea what it wants to say) but tries to be sweet as can­dy and leave the view­ers with heart eyes like emo­jis. The pur­pose is quite sim­ple though: to cre­ate some­thing mag­i­cal out of the pro­sa­ic and mun­dane, the way Amélie (2001) did. The only prob­lem is that it feels hard to care about most of what hap­pens on screen af­ter a while, es­pe­cial­ly as things be­come tonal­ly messier.

Struc­tured into three chap­ters named af­ter its three main char­ac­ters, Thomas Stu­ber’s film is cen­tered on Chris­t­ian (Franz Ro­gows­ki), who be­gins his pro­ba­tion­ary pe­ri­od as a stock han­dler in a re­mote whole­sale mar­ket. Tac­i­turn and with a se­cret shady past, Chris­t­ian is tak­en un­der the wing of Bruno (Pe­ter Kurth), an old­er man and for­mer truck dri­ver who works at the drinks de­part­ment and teach­es him all sorts of tricks. Mean­while, Chris­t­ian falls in love with Mar­i­on (San­dra Hüller), who works on the sweets de­part­ment. All this is nar­rat­ed by him as he adapts to the job like in a mod­ern fa­ble of long aisles, shelves and forklifts.

Even though the aisles are shown to be a somber place that lit­er­al­ly doesn’t see the light of day (there are no win­dows), there is a cu­ri­ous cheer­ful mood in what we see, es­pe­cial­ly when we hear Bruno talk about Fork­lift con­flicts or the amus­ing nick­names of cer­tain de­part­ments (like “Siberia” for frozen goods). The dull rou­tine of the job is em­pha­sized by re­peat­ed quick in­serts of Christian’s col­lar, sleeves and name tag as he gets ready for work, and yet Stu­ber man­ages to find sweet­ness in the or­di­nary, like when Mar­i­on blows her hot cap­puc­ci­no to the sound of sea waves and with the pic­ture of a palm tree be­hind her on the wall.

But Stu­ber makes some strange choic­es too, and I don’t un­der­stand for ex­am­ple why he would care about close-ups of a cig­a­rette be­ing rolled or a toi­let be­ing flushed. Some gags fall com­plete­ly flat too, like a bizarre se­cu­ri­ty video, or when we see peo­ple eat­ing from the trash (I fail to see what is sup­posed to be fun­ny in that). My biggest prob­lem, though, is how the movie gets lost in the third act when it be­comes way too se­ri­ous for the tone it was aim­ing at un­til then. There is a point­less con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Chris­t­ian and Bruno and even a tragedy that feels so off that the im­pres­sion I have is that the film doesn’t have any clear direction.

I also find it weird that Mar­i­on would live in such a huge, beau­ti­ful house and work at a su­per­mar­ket, but who cares about that when the re­sult is so harm­less and dull? My im­pres­sion is that, if this were an Amer­i­can movie star­ring Adam San­dler and, say, Meg Ryan in­stead of the ac­tress of Toni Erd­mann (2016), the gen­er­al re­sponse would be a lot different.


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