Review of Touch Me Not (2018): Within Reach - Romanian Director Adina Pintilie’s Film Wins the Gold Bear
By Edith Ottschofski, republished here with her gracious consent
Translation by Christina Schultz
The Romanian-Czech-Bulgarian-French co-production - with actors and laypersons that hail from Great Britain and Australia - was filmed in English with occasional German. It is an appropriately global film in today’s day and age. In 2013, Călin Peter Netzer was the first Romanian director to the win the Golden Bear with Child’s Pose/Poziția Copilului.
People dressed in white sit across from one another in a white room; at the edge of the room, people dressed in black crouch on the floor. A calm, solemn voice gives the people dressed in white instructions on how to touch each other. The people dressed in black sitting on the floor observe. The focus is on a bald-headed young man (Tómas Lemarquis); he is supposed to touch his partner’s face, a young man with long hair (Christian Bayerlein) who cannot move his arms or legs. As the camera gradually reveals his [partner’s] face with beaming, expectant eyes, the hint of a smile, protruding teeth and traces of drool, the viewer is embarrassed by this indiscretion. Tomas carefully follows the instructions and only later can we see him oppressed by this burden. The face is too intimate for him to let someone get close, but that is exactly what this film is about.
The director researched physical intimacy over the course of seven years. One of the main characters, Laura Benson, a woman in her mid-fifties, does not allow anyone to get close to her and tries to overcome this in various ways: in therapy sessions; with a call boy whom she watches masturbate; and with Hanna, a transvestite and music lover. At the same time she visits a person in need of care (possibly her father), and her austere look betrays that this is hard for her to deal with. In the second narrative thread, the bald Tomas explains how he lost his hair at the age of 13 and how his life changed. At one point in the film, he lands in a BDSM club where he meets another character who is not averse to unusual sex practices. The most thoughtful statements are made by the disabled Christian, who does not like to be called by his name, as he speaks openly and candidly about his shortcomings, but also about his fulfilling sex life with Grit, putting many an able-bodied person to shame by being thankful for his body.
Reflected in an awkwardly mounted glass in front of the camera, the questioning director appears every now and then and thematizes the creative process on a meta level in which she speaks with an absent person (her husband?). One time she is pushed in front of the camera by the main actress, and, close to tears, reveals her fragility. Thus she opens up her innermost self, just as she demands of her characters. The tangibly close, deeply human subject moves the viewer, especially because it is portrayed so bluntly but without compromising the characters and one is unsure whether it is scripted fiction or reality. Nevertheless, based on the director’s interventions alone, it is clearly an art film.
Audio tracks consisting partially of screams or loud music tracks underline the severity and seriousness of the film. I wonder if the film would have benefitted from a bit more humor. Instead there are some involuntary funny scenes. The film is still worth watching, not least because it sounds out the border between normalcy and the unconscious mind and gets one to think.
Link to Edith Ottschofski’s original text in German:
By Christina Schultz
If you think it’s hard being a woman, try being a prepubescent teenager who can’t decide whether they - not he or she, the semantics are important here - even want to become a woman or not. That is precisely what director and writer Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s film They wants us to witness: “their” decision process, or more accurately indecision process, on deciding which gender to become. And this is where the film might disappoint those who expect a traditional resolution. In the end, we don’t know what they decide.
“They” goes by the name J, played by Rhys Fehrenbacher, a gender non-conforming 14-year-old assigned female at birth. Rhys, however, was born male and identifies as transgender. Like his character, Rhys was going through identity-postponement at the time the film was being made. Similarities and differences between J and Rhys aside, Rhys’ performance of J is excellent, capturing a shyness, delicateness and vulnerability totally fitting with the film’s overall theme of indecision, as if J’s introversion is somehow linked to the fact they don’t know who they are. J seems to get lost in the shuffle quite often throughout the 90 minute story, perhaps because of their indecision. We often see J in the garden tending to plants, quietly fixing technical issues (like pinning up a young boy’s outfit or fitting an iPhone into a projector) or hiding in the shed keeping tabs on how they feel that day: B - G - ? The hormone blockers, non-FDA approved by the way, are giving J more time to decide. The monthly tallies of Bs, Gs and ?s, when the camera offers us a glimpse of them, do not reveal a clear-cut answer. J tells her older sister Lauren something that perfectly captures their dilemma: “I wish I could remain a child.” Then J could avoid making the decision, which society might see as an act of resistance (by denying the very core of our heteronormative society), albeit a quiet one. This indecision, suspension, postponing of becoming an adult unfortunately has no easy solution, and the film’s ending highlights this fact.
But J isn’t the only one with a big decision ahead of them in the film that remains unresolved. Lauren, played by Nicole Coffineau, is the polar opposite of J. Extroverted, artistically-inclined, decidedly female and in a heterosexual relationship. She has to decide whether or not to take a job assignment in another city. Lauren’s Iranian boyfriend Araz, played by Koohyar Hosseini, inevitably steals the show. He is a ray of humor in an otherwise somber and slow-moving film. He and his family, who live in the suburbs of Chicago, are lively, loud, chaotic and speak a dizzying mix of English and Persian. Araz, we learn at a family get together, has visa troubles and must decide whether to move back to Iran or marry Lauren, which is now problematic if she takes the job. This is the point when J, referred to as “Lauren’s brother” in the Iranian household, is almost forgotten. At first I saw this as a weakness of the film, but when one considers the theme of indecision it all falls into place. J is always around, observing, helping, thinking, even if they are not always the center of attention.
As if the three main characters and their (in)decisions were not enough, Ghazvinizadeh adds another, subtler reminder of the theme. J and Lauren’s aunt suffers from dementia and there is uncertainty about the aunt’s health and future. In other words, we briefly meet another character who is in a state of arrested development.
Not only is Ghazvinizadeh’s thematic choice inspired by Robert Bresson’s idea of fragmentation and ellipsis, ambiguity and the undefinable, but also her camerawork, which I found skilled and diverse. She uses a number of mediated shots with images reflected in glass doors or the spectator looking through windows at the action. There are also static shots and close ups on flowers, J’s list or, my personal favorite, of J’s dirty knees from the garden. We have tracking shots of J from behind, which focuses on their alabaster neck and further highlights their vulnerability. We even see shots of computer screens when Lauren and Araz conduct Skype calls.
They is ultimately an intimate story about searching for yourself. In the end, we are reminded it is not always easy. The likeable characters and appealing visuals make up for the, for some, frustrating lack of resolution. What is important is that you have a loving family who will support you for who you are, no matter what you decide.
Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, clinical psychologist explains transgender vs gender-nonconforming in this video:
[Note: much of the information in this review was gathered by the author during a post-film discussion with director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh; the photos were also taken by the author during the discussion]
By Elisabeth Granzow
At first glance, One Day at a Time (2017-) seems like a typical, easily forgettable sitcom. It makes use of the good old live-audience-trope of the traditional sitcom genre, which is often connected to pure escapist television by cueing the viewer to laugh. However, after binge-watching the two seasons of the Netflix comedy, I realized that One Day is a hidden, thought-provoking gem, not only within the sitcom genre, but in the whole television landscape. The comedy is created by Gloria Calderon Kellet and Mike Royce and presents nuanced and complex representations of race, gender, sexuality and class with lovable characters and heartwarming storylines. One Day accomplishes so many things, which makes it worthwhile for broad audiences despite it being hidden within Netflix’ extensive list of programs.
Over the past few decades, half-hour comedies have been more experimental in style and content by portraying diverse topics such as race, gender and sexuality. One reason for this shift lies in the diversification of the television market, which now also includes popular streaming services and their original content, such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. These programs are often popular with critics and less dependent on ratings and a mass audience than mainstream network sitcoms. Therefore, these formats are considered niche programs that target more specific demographics and do not have the pressure of appealing to everyone. One Day falls into the category of a niche program, since it is part of the vast selection of original content by Netflix. The streaming service just recently released the second season of One Day, which has received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences.
The show about a Cuban-American family includes a range of current topics, such as PTSD, depression, immigration and racism. What I found most astonishing about this series, however, is that it combines urgent political commentary with the very traditional format of the mainstream family sitcom. One Day is filmed in front of a live audience and incorporates the laughter and reactions of the enthusiastic viewers in the studio. Most of the scenes take place in the living room of the family and are shot with a three-camera set-up. Thus, One Day is reminiscent of the more traditional mainstream network sitcoms. In addition, it is actually a remake of the popular sitcom with the same name (1975-1984) by Norman Lear, who is also a producer of the new One Day. It is surprising to find this format on Netflix rather than a network channel. The more acclaimed network sitcoms like Modern Family and Black-ish (both on ABC) stylistically diverged from these traditions by using the “mockumentary” style or voice-over narration. One Day, on the other hand, uses typical, seemingly outdated, sitcom conventions, which are usually linked to low-brow entertainment and escapist TV, which is considered to lack political or societal value.
However, I would argue that One Day is more successful and complex in political commentary than the stylistically more experimental sitcoms on the mainstream networks such as Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat (also on ABC). The majority of the mainstream family sitcoms are still traditional and conservative in their content, representing the norms of American society and families, such as the nuclear middle-class family with the father as the head of the household and breadwinner. Some of these shows present non-white families and might discuss racial identities as in the sitcoms mentioned above. Yet, their race is often the only thing that sets them apart from the other white middle class families prominent on TV. Therefore, these network family sitcoms still follow the blueprint of normative nuclear families and use diverse racial identities as a way to stand out and make the program more marketable. Since these series are made for a broad audience with the aim to make their viewers laugh, the issues around race, gender and class they address are often resolved in a simplified manner in one 22-minute episode.
One Day seems different from these traditional sitcoms. The comedy presents a multigenerational Cuban-American family and centers around Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a divorced single mother who raises her two children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), together with her mother Lydia (played by the amazing Rita Moreno). The sitcom does not have a patriarch or any important father figure. Elena’s and Alex’s father is mostly absent and battles with alcoholism and PTSD. Penelope, with the support of her mother, is the one who holds the family together while working full-time as a nurse and attending school to become a nurse practitioner. The working mother is also a veteran who is dealing with PTSD and takes antidepressants.
What is so refreshing about this show is that it portrays many issues Americans deal with on a daily basis and connects them to the political state of America, for example the lack of fundamental support of veterans from the government or the economic struggle of single parent households. While addressing many “American” issues, One Day also discusses the diversity of ethnic and cultural identities in the US and is one of the few shows depicting the life of a Cuban-American family, which is sadly rare, since the Latin American community is still highly underrepresented on US television. Furthermore, the sitcom frequently addresses topics of immigration and the fear of deportation. Lydia, for example, gives moving monologues about leaving Cuba, when she was a child and had to leave her parents and older sister behind.
The uniqueness of this seemingly traditional sitcom stems from the complex challenges the Alvarez family is facing, which are not resolved in one single episode. Instead these challenges are recurring, which highlights the complexity of the characters’ identities and experiences when they have to face sexism, racism and homophobia. Elena, for example, comes out as a lesbian to her family in season one, but this is not resolved in one episode and her challenges to grow up in a heteronormative world are continuously addressed. A cross-season storyline depicts how Elena and her family deal with the fact that her father is having problems accepting her sexuality and that it is “not just a phase” for her.
Though all these topics seem very serious and are sometimes heart-wrenching, this show is still a sitcom that aims to make the audience laugh. This is why I think One Day is such a hidden gem on the TV landscape. While it incorporates serious issues around identity and oppression, the family celebrates life, their culture and the happy things they experience. Despite the fact that some of the jokes and punchlines come out a bit flat in a typical sitcom manner, much humor is also evoked through the different identities and perspectives of the characters, especially between the family’s three generations. Another source of humor is Dwayne Schneider (Todd Grinnell), the ignorant but well-meaning white landlord. In various episodes, he relates Lydia’s immigration experiences with his own immigration as a wealthy Canadian, therefore completely overlooking his privileges as a rich white man. Thus, One Day accomplishes being cheerful, optimistic and thought-provoking at the same time.
The complexity of the storylines and characters combined with charm, humor and important political messages make One Day a sitcom that has the potential to be appealing to a wider audience. The sitcom is also a great example of a female-centered program co-created by a woman. With its fantastic female cast the show also empowers three generations of Cuban-American women. Lydia, Penelope and Elena represent the significant bond of women within a family and are inspiring role models for Alex, who is raised to be a sensitive, thoughtful and confident young man by his sister, mother and grandmother. Thankfully, after much suspense, Netflix finally renewed the sitcom for a third season. Many fans were concerned that Netflix would not renew One Day because the program might not stick out to viewers browsing through Netflix’ vast content. I can only encourage everyone to watch One Day at a Time with the hope that many more seasons will come.
The two seasons of One Day at a Time can be streamed on Netflix. The sitcom has been renewed for a third season.
By Marina Brafa
A lot of praise was showered on Lady Bird when it came out in the U.S. last year. It won four Golden Globe Awards in main categories and received five Oscar nominations in 2018 for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Greta Gerwig is the fifth woman in Oscar history to receive a nomination for Best Director. Unfortunately she went home empty handed at the Oscars. But whether or not the awards mean anything, Lady Bird still deserves praise, as it is a gorgeous film that depicts the coming of age of a young woman in a sober, thoughtful manner. Moreover, the fact that the film was made by a talented female director-screenwriter and includes a plot driven by realistic female characters makes it stand out among similar films.
There are two points in particular which I think are crucial for the success of this low-budget movie at the box office. First, the universal plot. One can state in one sentence what the movie is about: A coming-of-age story of a teenage girl that grows up in an average American city in a middle-class family with financial issues. Sound familiar? Correct. There is a whole genre that covers these kinds of stories and audiences can therefore easily relate to the film. However, what makes Lady Bird stand out is Greta Gerwig’s original, empathetic script. The film’s protagonist, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), is an almost 18-year old growing up in not-so-exciting Sacramento. She is unpleasant and rebellious, especially toward her mother. She re-names herself “Lady Bird” and tries to reach her dreams: losing her virginity and attending an ivy league college, even though her family is living on a tight budget because her father recently lost his job. On her journey, Christine/Lady Bird is nasty and loving, determined and insecure all at the same time. To create a character that carries all these features, and thus comes close to the complexity of real life, is not an easy task to accomplish. But Gerwig’s script does a good job of layering and interweaving these fibers of life into her characters and their interpersonal relationships. There are no crazy twists, no bloody messes and certainly no action-laden sequences, but rather subtle personal development that makes the story seem authentic and relatable.
Second, the cast is outstanding. The characters run the risk of seeming flat precisely because of their complexity and the difficulty for actors to convey emotions that differ from person to person. But because the plot itself is not filled with artificial and implausible turns, it depends on and is heavily driven by the artists’ performances. Luckily, the cast of Lady Bird captures the emotions perfectly. It does not come as a surprise that two of the main actresses were nominated for an Academy Award for their acting. Saoirse Ronan as Christine the moody teenager and Laurie Metcalf as the overbearing Marion are a perfectly mismatched mother-daughter duo who give their characters life. They are accompanied by a group of likewise gifted actors and actresses like Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s friend Julie and Timothée Chalamet who plays one of Christine’s love interests (coincidentally he appears in another critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning movie Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino), and was nominated for Best Actor). These so-called supporting actors are “supporting” in the best way: they counterbalance the dominant figures of Christine and her mother. Like mirrors that surround Christine and Marion, the other cast members reflect various aspects of the main characters and show how multifaceted these two women are. Sure, the supporting roles could be more fully developed, but this is not the aim of the movie. It centers on Christine and her relationships and avoids losing itself in elaborate psychological profiles that would drown the movie and turn the comprehensible, tragicomic coming-of-age film into a pretentious, lifeless character study.
Lady Bird is about human beings in all their positive and negative moments and screenwriter Greta Gerwig was able to capture them. In many articles and reviews she has been applauded for this element of the movie. Her role as director, however, has not been emphasized much, despite her Oscar nomination for Best Director. Maybe this is because the camera work is impressive in a subtle, diffident manner. Although we have a close look at family life and follow Christine throughout the film, the camera manages to stay unobtrusive as if it just happens to be observing the situation in which it finds the main characters. Many scenes unfold in tableau-like compositions under the bright Californian sun, the latter highlighting Christine’s outfit choices ranging from colorful to dark (depending on her mood). In the end, Christine/Lady Bird moves to New York where we witness her getting drunk and then hospitalized for her wild night out. So far, so normal for an 18-year-old freshman.
While that might seem anticlimactic, it is more important what happens on a symbolic level – “Lady Bird” changes her name back to Christine McPherson and calls her family back home. The self-proclaimed “Lady Bird” takes off, faces her struggles, undergoes a transformation and gets her broken wings fixed again. She lands back on earth and can now find her way with both feet firmly on the ground. What a happy ending.
Lady Bird was released in the U.S. on November 3, 2017 and in Germany on April 19, 2018.