What do you get when you take a hopeless romantic virgin and dip her into the strange world of overly frank, modern ('90s) sexuality? I Love You, Don't Touch Me! -- a refreshingly fun, frequently provocative flick that leaves you feeling strangely warm despite its raunchy revelry.
Marla Schaffel plays Katie, a 25 year-old struggling singer in Los Angeles who's more "in love with love" than into having an actual relationship. Ever since the two-timing of her first love, she's dated a litany of "trolls, perverts, or liars," while clinging to an infatuated friend, Ben (Mitchell Whitfield).
Engaged friend Elizabeth (Nancy Sorel) advises she compromise with Ben, but Katie avoids her guilt about it by countering with "sexual attraction is not negotiable." Ben bears Katie's rejections and fix-ups with her "loser" girlfriends by venting in therapy. As he bemoans "women don't want sensitive," Katie's sex-crazed friend Janet (Meredith Scott Lynn) preaches that "contradiction is the female condition," while Katie denounces women for "trying to play a men's game."
Ben and Janet hit it off, bursting Katie's "platonic relationships never break up" bubble. She accuses Ben of exploiting Janet, but he knows it's her own fears talking. Next, Katie meets (rear-ends) famous composer Richard Webber (Michael Harris), a 40s cad so suave he gets away with lines like, "There are no accidents, only cosmic convenience." His expert swagger melts Katie, and she falls into his bed. But his women-"sampling" breaks them up, breaking Katie's heart, and leaving cool stud neighbor Jones (Darryl Theirse) to attempt support with harsh tags like, "We are animals."
Ben and Janet split, too, and Katie confesses to Ben her fear of losing him. Then Katie witnesses a new "compromise" low at Elizabeth's wedding, dissolving her remaining ideals. It's a love epiphany, and, finally, she makes the right relationship choice, by choosing with more than her mind alone.
Don't Touch Me is an ensemble where equally perspicacious people get to fight it out over the meaning of, and need for, love, sex, and friendship. Its cast of unknowns is exceptional. There's Mitchell Whitfield's Woody-Allen-with-chops Ben, Nancy Sorel's brutally honest Elizabeth, Darryl Theirse's smug libidinous Jones, Meredith Scott Lynn's sexual pragmatist Janet, and Michael Harris's silky smooth Richard. And all are silly, fixated, and pathetic, but poignantly real. Their divergent lifestyles make perfect foils for Katie's sexual/romantic paranoia, surrounding her by forces that, though well-intentioned, have a hard time just letting her be.
Marla Schaffel's debut as tightly-wound, vulnerable Katie is touching. Like a tremulous, awestruck alien roaming the sex-and-love-in-the-'90s world, she engages in intellectual jousts to circumnavigate passions she's scared to taste outside of love. But her songs and fantasies reveal how torn she is. This makes for a timely psychic conflict, plus some hilarious situations. Those attraction/revulsion daydreams about her boss are, alone, worth the rental. And her subconscious voice-over musings and Ally McBeal-ish suppressed urges make her extremely identifiable. (Note: this film was made in '96, a year before Ally's hi-jinks began.) Some may find Katie ingratiatingly prudish and self-absorbed, but Schaffer's matter-of-fact delivery makes you buy her completely. Locked in a clichéd something's-gotta-give dilemma, she trips writer/director Davis's land mines, but the explosions come suspenseful, funny, and almost always with a tender (albeit bawdy) heart.
Davis's characters aren't spokes-objects for the moral high-ground. They're simply versions of Ben's "overeducated, intelligent neurotic," going after fun, success, and love, though often at a high price. They're examples of life-views on surrender vs. restraint, and glimpses of their pathos (e.g., Richard's secret self-loathing) curb our enthusiastic dismissal of them. Between their desperate lines the truth is to be found--that they all need meaningful intimacy. This is no better evidenced than in Ben and Janet's fling as they ricochet between just-for-fun and something more. No one viewpoint coexists for them. Stuck in an intimacy no-man's-land, they ever near-miss each other's hearts. Comedy or not, such scenes graze the core definitions of intimacy.
The frank sexual language and sharp sex/romance divisions may put off some, but that's the calculated risk one takes with the subject matter. You can't showcase big dichotomies like virgin/whore or love/sex without rustling up our variously ingrained morals on sexual/romantic politics. Still, Julie Davis has as much in common with Nicholas Sparks as Lenny Bruce. Free-flowing raciness aside, the ending's as cliché-romantic as it gets.
Sprightly songs from Jane Ford and Melissa Ferrick (Schaffel bolting out a few) accentuate Katie's dueling energies of trepidation and desire. Some inserts are a riot, like Katie paying a homeless man to confess his "first time." But there are missteps, such as Katie's early non-virgin-like language and the Hollywood therapist-as-idealized-pal. The DVD has nice extras, like director commentary, screen-tests, and sound bites.
Don't Touch Me is a rare romantic comedy with depth -- a hoot, but with a subtext as big as an iceberg's beneath its anxious surface. Plenty of films boldly sail the infinite permutations of love and lust without half as honest, or humorous, a debate on where the two touch and diverge. In the balancing act of our minds and bodies' yearnings, we could use more films that wiggle under our knee-jerk judgments to that place where we just want to understand.