The Touch (Ingmar Bergman, 1971)
Karin Vergerus (Bibi Andersson) lives a comfortable life, married to successful, well-respected doctor Andreas (Max Von Sydow), tending to house and child in a quaint village of the suburbs, until she finds herself swept up in an affair with the tempestuous American archaeologist David (Elliott Gould), opening up a whole new potential for her… even as things grow difficult, with Andreas finding out and David’s temperament turning violent and volatile.
Ah, Vogler, Vergerus, Anna, Winkelman, Andreas, and on and on, the Bergman character names repeat again and again, played by the same ensemble (Von Sydow, Ullman, the two Anderssons, Björnstrand, Thulin, et al), as if it’s all a single body of work (light comedies included – if you can call them light, with their underlying themes of the cruelty found within human relationships); a group of lost souls, desperate to divorce from their inner angst, manipulated about, like puppets on strings by a cruel silent God (or, more aptly director) playing desperate games of dress up in hopes of finding salvation, only to discover the same useless cruelty, the same bitter despair. In watching any of his sixty plus films, it’s impossible not to immediately recognize you’re entering (rarely less than effectively, often brilliantly) a Bergman world, even in his earliest works.
One of the pleasures of 2018 being the centenary of Bergman’s birth (with all the cinema rep series it has led to), other than the simple cinephile thrill of multiple chances to sit in the darkened theater giving oneself over to the vision and voice of one of the world’s great cinematic masters, is the chance it afforded me to catch up with the relatively small selection of his films I never got a chance to see before, which this current Cinémathèque series (their second Bergman block of the year) offers up a few of, including his fascinating, distilled to the point of avant garde, made-for-television quickie The Rite (which I wrote about last) and, this, his poorly received first English-language film The Touch.
If not in the hands of Bergman, the synopsis for The Touch has red flag warnings all over it of the most mundane, bourgeois piece of status quo conforming audience comfort fodder… but of course the director provides things much harsher, more raw and exposed. From the very first scene, with Karin arriving at the hospital just moments too late to be at her mother’s bedside as she dies, we’re reminded in no uncertain terms – this tale isn’t going to be about providing emotional comfort – for either the characters, or the audience.
Bibi Andersson, for me, has always been the most beautiful and stunning of the entire Bergman stable of leading women (all of them his lovers – but more about that and his naughty serial womanizing in the apparently condemning doc coming out later this year), if not the best as a performer (I’d hand that prize to Liv Ullman), but her role as Karin allows her to give her greatest Bergman performance. Initially acting on a whim and an instinct, then slowly becoming aware of the sense of boredom that has made her open to this affair, even as she realizes she loves each man, and grows quite convinced she can lead a dual life and remain with both (if only her startlingly understanding husband and dangerously jealous lover would learn to play along), Andersson’s Karin alternates between whimsical and childlike, then serious and sad, then ultimately forced to grow up (only because Elliot Gould’s David can not) and she’s a marvel to behold. Her early scenes of first allowing the seduction, then ultimately acting as the seducer (after David can’t pull the trigger) is a real pleasure to watch (and experience), with Bergman and the performers creating an exciting sense of the awkwardness and desire of things like first physical contact.
The other usual Bergman player, Max Von Sydow (sometimes Andersson’s lover in a movie, sometimes a husband – here a husband) isn’t asked to do as much, as the story doesn’t revolve around him, but he still manages to bring an admirable humanity to his distracted, preoccupied doctor character we’re meant to understand Karin would stray from. The scene where Andreas confronts David in his city apartment, with Karin hiding in the bedroom (though all of us understanding he knows she’s there), revealing – to Karin’s shock – he has treated David in the recent past for a suicide attempt, in which the doctor is both physically intimidated yet retains his dignity, is a perfectly captured moment for director and actor.
Considering how badly received I’ve always understood the film to be, I was expecting Elliot Gould to be the unconvincing player, coming from a different tradition, that wouldn’t fit, but I was happy to find this not the case at all. He’s as good as the other two players, his difference – and outsider quality — adding a nice texture, first charming Karin with his impulsiveness, then scaring her with his temper tantrums (he shockingly hits her at one point, with little apology afterwards – certainly not an acceptable concept within today’s censoring #metoo moral parameters, to say the least, but works perfectly within a mature film where Karin is presented as barely phased and more emotionally capable than him). It’s interesting to see Bergman’s trenchant portrait of the American – vibrant and seductive, even intellectual, yet ultimately self-centered and destructively spoiled – standing out that much more against the dignified manner with which Bergman’s angst-ridden Swedish ensemble handle their inner turmoil.
The saturated autumnal quality to long-time director of photography Sven Nykvist’s photography stands out (especially in this wonderful DCP restoration); gorgeous, creating a beautiful and lush environment with such confident and daring strokes you can see the beginnings here of what would lead to their greatest most audacious cinematographic collaborations to come, including Cries and Whispers a year later and Fanny and Alexander a decade after that. Woody Allen was clearly copying the look (to lesser effect) in his 1987 September, a film based on a Chekov play yet composed and shot like a Bergman chamber piece homage (a film that, amazingly, Allen re-shot in its entirety, with a different cast, after not being happy with the results of the first go-round).
I was wondering if perhaps the long-form confessional style Bergman dialogue would sound unconvincing spoken in English, yet I didn’t find that at all. In fact, it’s a mystery to me why the film wasn’t well received.
With it’s closing scenes, first showing Karin desperately searching for the disappeared David and coming across the unkind, invalid sister he cares for, a powerful metaphor for the enabling psychic sickness that Bergman sees at the heart of most human relationships (the fact that emotional sickness and despair is often presented in Bergman’s films through physical malady is unsympathetic to the physically challenged, well, I would argue that film, at its highest, is a visual realization of our dreams, fears and emotions, so, while it’s worthwhile for it to be informed, censoring or perversely configuring it into something socially respectable has the effect of rendering it meaningless and impotent), and then ultimately deciding to return to her bourgeois existence rather than continue the dual life that includes the unreliable David, might seem like a re-establishment of the status quo and, yet, in the hands of Bergman, and Andersson’s great performance, we understand she’s grown and become her own master.
The sense of satisfaction to be found in the ending doesn’t come from her return to the status quo, but rather the clear sense she now feels free inside, capable of adventuring on her own, perhaps even to eventually leave again. The double image of herself, with her mirror reflection directly below in the pond water she stands before (with David having stormed off, seemingly for good) perfectly captures (not only with just the conception of the shot, but through Nykvist’s stunning photography) the sense of a new, outward seeking Karin.
If there is one failing (and it’s minor) it would be around the inclusion of the newly dug up statue of the Virgin Mother. As archaeologist David describes to Karin how the bugs that had previously lied dormant all those years with the underground statue have now come alive and are eating uncontrollably away at the statue, the attempted allusions with Karin seem surprisingly literal, if not clunky, from a brilliant writer like Bergman.
Even with that minor offense, The Touch surprised me as a really nice, worthy addition to the Bergman cannon. It took the director’s hundredth birthday to come around for me to get around to seeing it, but, hey, I’m pleased I did.