Ingmar Bergman 100: The Touch, by Scott Nye
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth. Though he died in 2007, his legacy lives on, and I’ll be taking the opportunity throughout the year to celebrate my favorite filmmaker.
Ingmar Bergman’s films were about as personal as they come, and trying to find characters in them that most closely resemble himself proves a losing battle; what qualities of himself he might place in his women, most especially, becomes difficult to discern. But one character type distinguishes itself, not only for the frequent physical resemblance for which he cast, but the specificity of the portrait – the cruel narcissist obsessed with his artistic pursuit who embroils a woman in his world and intermittently ruins and ravishes her. What I know of Bergman’s personal life, this was an experience not foreign to him. While one respects the honesty in principle, the practice in films like To Joy (1949) and The Magician (1958) can be, even for this Bergman obsessive, a bit of a chore.
The Touch (1971) is similarly autobiographical – it was released the same year Bergman married Ingrid von Rosen, with whom had had carried on an intermittent affair for over ten years prior, and who bore him a child during that period. All the while, she was married to another man. The Touch is about a jealous, vulgar, callus, but not charmless man carrying on an affair with a married woman who’s the essence of compassion and who ends up carrying his child. The film was Bergman’s first for an American studio, with an American actor, partially in the English language, and it is, by any standard metric we craft for these sort of things, not a very good film. The first half-hour is a nightmare of dramatic pacing, so much so that when I saw it a few weeks ago at USC, I wondered if the projectionist had simply misplaced the second reel and gone right to the third. It wanders between boppy romantic comedy (arguably the greater concession to his new American audience) and cruel melodrama with total disregard. Bergman himself virtually disowned it.
Sometimes, however, the metrics we use to judge artistic quality cannot account for the thoughts and feelings the work stirs in us, and rather than shove off such matter as a “guilty pleasure” or some such, our time is better spent challenging the metric.
Elliott Gould plays the Bergman stand-in, David Kovac, an American archaeologist living in Sweden while he and his team dig out a statue of the Virgin Mary. At a hospital (sure, why not), he meets Karin (Bibi Andersson), whose mother has just died and who, unbeknownst to David, is married to an old friend of his, Andreas (Max von Sydow). They all gather for dinner, giving Bergman some time to explore the contemporary middle-class milieu of his time of too much drink and knowledge and photos (muscles he’d put to significantly better use in Scenes From a Marriage two years later). David rather suddenly confesses his love for Karin, they rather suddenly begin spending time together, and she rather suddenly shows up at his apartment ready to sleep with him.
This is all the stuff you have to kind of work past. Even the emotional tissue is disconnected, and Bergman gives no indication of the passage of time, no sense that anything other than precisely what we see has transpired between the two. And what we see does not exactly lay the groundwork for what Karin calls her first affair. But before long (I mean, real quick), they’re in bed together, and Karin is talking about all the ways her body has let her down over the years, and they’re intimate but not quite sexual, and the whole thing starts to become quite tender.
I heard Elliott Gould speak at some length about this film in a discussion with Alec Baldwin at TCM Fest a few years back. He’s outspokenly proud of his work in and involvement with the film (he’s one of the few American actors to ever work with Bergman) and he talked a lot about how Bergman directed Gould to let his eyes take the lead. Even in his early films, Bergman was attentive to the way the body can express the soul’s worries and desires. Gould and Andersson so beautifully latch onto one another physically that the somewhat-stilted English dialogue never really registers as such. Watching them look at each other – he with reverence, she with affection – or hold one another creates all the bond one needs. When they’re ripped apart, we don’t exactly root for their reunion (by this point, he’s exhibited plenty cruelty), but we understand what draws them to each other. Each satisfies some hunger in the other, some mix of carnality and spiritual nurturing that would fascinate and flummox Bergman throughout his career. In a scene that’s almost Biblical, Andersson takes Gould’s head against her bare breast, he reduced to the helplessness of a child, she something nearer to god than mother. This power dynamic will later be inverted as she, pregnant, chases him to London, just to see him one more time.
For over twenty years to this point, Bergman had on average directed more than one film every year, a pace that left him with a handful of misfires and more than his share of landmark classics, but which largely meant he worked in brevity. Only six ran in excess of 100 minutes, and none ran over 110. At 115 minutes, The Touch is the longest film he’d ever made, and paradoxically feels the most as though it needed more time. Shortly following it, Bergman would release his first multi-part television work (Scenes From a Marriage), which also dealt with the difficulties and joys in modern relationships. It ran, at its full six-episode length, nearly six hours, and edited for theatrical release is was still nearly three. A similar model followed in 1976 with Face to Face, a three-hour film on television and over two in theaters. And of course his theatrical swan song (or so he intended), the magnificent Fanny and Alexander, ran over six hours in its full version and over three hours for theatrical.
In The Touch, we find Bergman butting up against so many things, and while the language and cultural barrier to U.S. exhibition may feel the most grating at first, I think instead it was the cautious realization that his ideal model of work had its limits. It is a fairly sprawling work for Bergman, covering several months if not years, a span he had only really covered to this point through flashback. If it must be approached as a transitional film, so be it, but I maintain the beauty within it makes it quite an exceptional film by any measure I’m interested in, save perhaps the extremely high bar Bergman had set for him by this time. For every skipped dramatic beat, there is a shot like the one through thin billowing curtains of Bibi Andersson staring out the window, or the letters exchanged between she and Gould, or he, curled and wailing over everything he cannot have. I can’t dismiss the film, and I have little interest in trying.
The Touch was never released on DVD, but will tour as part of Janus’s celebration of Bergman’s centenary, and is slated for Blu-ray release in the U.K. I expect and hope a stateside release will follow.