The Touch (1971) is one of Ingmar Bergman’s lesser-known films and had all but disappeared for decades. Now it has been released by the BFI as part of its major Bergman season, marking the centenary of the renowned Swedish director’s birth. This restored version, in its original bilingual format, stars Elliott Gould, the first American to star in a Bergman film.
Mother of two, Karin (Bibi Andersson) is happily married to a doctor, Andreas (Max von Sydow), but their contented and stable home life is disturbed by the arrival of David (Gould), a visiting Jewish American archaeologist working on the excavation of an old church in their town. Andreas asks him for dinner and from the first time they meet, David declares his love for Karin, propositioning her while Andreas is out of the room making coffee. To Karin’s surprise, she soon finds herself going to his flat, embarking on an affair with the wildly impulsive, erratic David. This set piece scene, however, is agonising; a master class on how to extinguish passion between two people. They are both awkward, but it is Karin, in particular, who irritates. She talks at excruciating length, ostensibly to hide her lack of confidence, and her detailed self-deprecation about her body contributes to the general sense of anxiety that pervades the room.
The relationship that develops is toxic — theirs is mostly a destructive, tormented love that suffers from David’s volatility and questionable past. He is unpredictable — psychologically and physically abusing Karin but also showing himself to be pathetically dependent on her. Frustratingly, Karin’s love for him seems to thrive on this dependency. She struggles to maintain the balance between her two lives, desire for David versus her attempt to maintain domestic equilibrium in her role as wife and mother. But her anguish verges on the melodramatic.
The film is saturated with obvious symbolism, from Karin’s red clothes to the wilting flowers in David’s apartment. The contrast between the warmth and sumptuous stylishness of her home to the stark, muted palette of David’s garret is over-emphasised.
Bergman’s title is ambiguous. It implies loving tenderness but in an exchange with Andreas, David repeatedly spits out how Andreas’s love for Karin is “as touching as hell”. In many ways, this laboured film is difficult to watch. It fails as a satisfying exploration of its fragile characters, leaving little nuance. In a tender moment, David tells Karin that he lost his family in the Holocaust but then later, Karin meets his sister in London. This random anomaly is never explained.
Allegedly, Bergman was unhappy with The Touch. Its release from relative obscurity will allow devotees the chance to judge for themselves.
The Touch is on release in cinemas from 23 February and on DVD from 23 April