The Compleat Ingmar #30: The Touch (1971)

Is it strange that I associate adultery with the 1960s and 1970s? Obviously I don’t think that adultery was invented in 1963, just after sexual intercourse (because, after all, Don Draper got there much earlier, right?), but when I think of the stories of or about the time, what comes to mind are the novels of John Updike or novels like The Ice Storm, which is set in the early ’70s. When I think adultery, I first and foremost think of men with sideburns wearing corduroy suits, sleeping with the wives of their colleagues or friends, much more so than I think of crazed blondes that boil bunnies before breakfast.

The Touch (1971)

In that respect, Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch, the first English language film by the director, is a good fit for the era. Adultery, check. ’70s hairdos, check. (There are probably few actors whose hair denotes the ’70s as much as Elliott Gould.)

And somehow, none of the people in these adulterous relationships seem to be happier due to their affairs. You can see why Bergman would be drawn to this material.

The Touch isn’t generally mentioned among Bergman’s best films, which I understand. Apart from one or two strands, its plot is relatively generic, and it ends so abruptly that it almost seems unfinished. It doesn’t have the iconic scenes of The Seventh Seal or Persona (which we’ll get to very soon in this series), nor does it have the warmth and humanity of Smiles of a Summer Night or Fanny and Alexander (which will form the grand finale of Criterion’s box set). Bergman also introduces a streak of unsubtle symbolism that lacks the ambiguity or the iconicity of the symbolism in his best films.

There is also an oddness to the film, to its dialogues and performances, that is in no small part due to what it does linguistically: The Touch is set in Sweden and its female lead, the married housewife Karin (Bibi Adnersson), is a Swede, while the man she starts an affair with, David (Elliott Gould), is an American archeologist, working at a nearby church. In keeping with the plot and characters, much of the dialogue very much feels like a non-native speaker trying to find the right words and idioms to express herself, while the native speaker who is nonetheless out of his regular environment tries to make his mixed-up feelings, which he only half understands himself, understood to a person who only speaks English as a foreign language.

However, it is this oddness, at least in part, that makes for the film’s appeal. It is the characters’ struggle to understand themselves, their emotions and their actions, and to make themselves understood, in a linguistic exchange in which neither is fully comfortable – and this translates from the conversations that David and Karin have into their sexual encounters. They share a first intimate scene that is sweet and funny, which however does not end in actual sex – they just lie together, naked, trying to fathom their fascination with the other, without jeopardising that first, tender moment by actual sexual intercourse. This moment will remain their most tender, affectionate one: whatever form of intercourse they go for, words or intimacy, they find themselves in conflict with one another. It is only at very rare moments that they speak the same language successfully.

Unfortunately, The Touch is one of those films about an adulterous affair that leaves the audience puzzled at what it is that draws these two characters towards one another. Certainly, there are moments where the attraction becomes clearer: David seems to be looking for a mother figure as much as for a lover, and Karin, whose children are teenaged and whose husband Andreas (Max von Sydow) has grown distant, seems to find in David, whose melancholy moods turn violent at times, someone that she can try to save. But for me their relationship veered from being cryptic (why would Karin stay with a lover who is cruel towards her when she doesn’t even seem to like him much of the time?) to clichéd in its psychological setup, and neither felt sustainably engaging.

What works fantastically, though, is Andersson’s performance. Even when I don’t understand why she would continue her affair with David, whose only immediate attraction (at least if you’re not into that thick, bushy ’70s hair) is that he is the opposite of Karin’s husband, Andersson never leaves us in doubt that all of this makes sense to her. She doesn’t struggle against a script that leaves her motivations vague – she makes the character and her actions her own, making her entirely believable throughout. The Touch is light on humour, but when it does use humour, it’s usually carried by Andersson. The material may not be Bergman’s strongest, but Andersson’s Karin deserves to be remembered among the many strong female performances in Bergman’s films.

Coming up next in Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, I’ll be revisiting his 1977 film The Serpent’s Egg, another English-language film (this time with no Swedish whatsoever) and again not much of a critical darling – but following that one, we’ll get to the film that, together with The Seventh Seal, Bergman is probably remembered for most: Persona. Stay tuned!

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