Anyone experienced with Bergman’s better-known films associate him with death, mortality, and the irrelevance of religion. In his most recognised film The
But in the ‘70s, these existential themes loosened in his work and he became more optimistic (to the criticism of some). In 1971, the year Ekerot died, Bergman’s 31st film The Touch opened to bad box-office takings and a poor response from critics – Roger Ebert claimed it was “a movie that no one liked that much”. I’m going to be controversial and say that, despite its issues, I like The Touch.
In a small medieval town in Sweden, a place where everyone knows everyone, happily-married Karin (Bibi Andersson) visits her mother in hospital – only to told she died 15 minutes prior. Weeping in the darkness of a cloakroom, a strange man turns the light on and sees her. This is Karin’s first meeting with David (Elliott Gould), an American archaeologist who works with her husband Andreas (Max von Sydow, in his final collaboration with Bergman). This encounter suddenly expands into an extramarital relationship.
David is a character that constantly surprises – his personality is in constant flux, without much (if any) explanation for its origins. He flies from soft comfort to aggressive misogynist in a second, plunging us (as much as Karin) into a state of constant tension – eggshells can’t compare. The opposite is felt from Karin, who is, at heart, a sensitive and self-conscious soul. Their love is an unlikely match, made in Hell.
Despite kicking off with death, its touch is far softer than in his previous films. Bergman was and is known for exploding big philosophical themes, sometimes hindering the characters – but in The Touch,the philosophy is more of a backdrop and the characters are released into the foreground. This reversal would be expanded to better effect in his 1973 film/miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, but The Touch possesses its own intrigue in Bergman’s exploration of mystery and truth. There are no dialogues about death or the futility of existence, but Sven Nykvist’s hard and natural cinematography visualises these conversations like whispers in the background. This is a film more about people than ideas.
This is Bergman’s first English-language film, and it shows. Much of the dialogue, particularly from David, often grazes irritating clichés that block the intended poignancy from entering the scene. Viewers may blame Gould’s performance for some of those lines, but he’s not the one at fault – it’s Bergman. Gould is great in the role, if a little out of water, and completely different from the Altman characters that made him famous. But some scenes between David and Karin are beautifully realistic and surprisingly funny, particularly in moments when they’re discussing irrelevant and mundane matters.
The Touch has been largely overlooked, not only because of its unavailability (until now), but because of its assumed insignificance compared to the movies made afterwards. It deserves its own praise as a strange, psychological drama that elegantly confuses expectations. Some of the abusive aspects of the relationship(and Karin’s acceptance of them) feel dated in our current times – but the characters, in spite of all their faults, are a painful joy to follow.
The Touch is released on 23rd February by the BFI as part of their Bergman retrospective.