The Touch Review

Karin Vergerus (Bibi Andersson) has been married to Andreas (Max von Sydow) for fifteen years and they have two children. She meets archaeologist David Kovac (Elliott Gould), who is a friend of Andreas. Soon, David reveals that he is attracted to Karin, and they embark on an affair...

At the beginning of the 1970s, Ingmar Bergman's cinema career had spanned over a quarter of a century, with his first film as writer dating from 1944 and his first as both writer and director from 1946. Making a film a year for most years, sometimes more, he had made his breakthrough internationally in the 1950s and was regarded as one of the world's great living filmmakers. So inevitably he had had offers to work outside his native Sweden. The Touch was his first English-language film (actually, about half-and-half Swedish and English, but more of that later). The film had its roots in 1964 when Bergman met Morton Baum, head of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which was moving into feature-film production. Elliott Gould was cast as David, Bergman having seen him in the 1970 film Getting Straight. (ABC had suggested Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman or Robert Redford, intriguingly. Hoffman declined because his wife was pregnant.) Gould thus became the first non-Nordic actor to play a leading role in a Bergman film.


Other than Gould's presence, and the English-language dialogue, The Touch is still very much a Bergman production, of a piece with many of his other films, shot in Sweden on the island of Gotland and in the studio in Stockholm, with some shooting in London, with many of his regular collaborators in place: Sven Nykvist as the cinematographer, Mago as the costume designer, and so on. (Bergman's regular cinematographer before Nykvist, Gunnar Fischer, is credited with the opening titles, presumably the shots of the village and seaside that they play over.) Bergman described The Touch as his first real love story, and it's at its base a three-hander between three flawed people: Karin, David and Andreas. (Sheila Reid, who has a significant one-scene role towards the end of the film, is the only other credited actor.) While Gould is top-billed, it's Karin who is at the centre of the film, and Bibi Andersson's performance is the standout, convincing us that she can fall for a man who, frankly, sends up red flags from the outset – David confesses that he first fell for Karin when he saw her crying, in hospital after her mother has died, in the film's opening scene.

The Touch has a contemporary setting so it's now a time capsule of Swedish décor and fashions from the turn of the decade, with Nykvist's cinematography heavy on autumnal oranges and ochres. Bergman also introduces a thread of symbolism, most explicitly the statue of the Virgin Mary which David has uncovered...and which, we find, has been eaten away from within by insects which had been hibernating there for some five hundred years. Given David's Jewishness, themes of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (where many of his relatives died) are touched upon. The film has an open ending, with an abrupt cut to black and no final credits, the cracks and splinters of the films' central relationships by then laid bare for all to see.

In the version Bergman filmed, which is the one on this disc, The Touch was a bilingual film, with the Swedish characters speaking in their own language to each other, but in English to the non-Swedes in the film: David, Sara (Sheila Reid's character) and a grumpy English custom's officer. On the film's original release in the UK and USA, however, the Swedish dialogue was dubbed into English. (Presumably the scene where Karin reads David a poem, first in Swedish and then in English, is the same in both versions.) With a few exceptions, reviews were negative, and the film was a commercial failure. The Touch had its UK cinema release on 7 October 1971 at the Prince Charles cinema in London. It had one showing on British television on BBC2 on 20 November 1977 (presumably with the script's one use of strong language removed) but that appears to be its only small-screen outing to date. Since then, it has become one of Bergman's least-shown and least-seen films, with no commercial release in the UK until the present disc. Bergman's next film was Cries and Whispers, which was acclaimed as then and remains now one of his masterpieces. He made just one more English-language film, The Serpent's Egg, though Autumn Sonata contains some English dialogue.


With a cinema reissue and this disc release, in Bergman's centenary year, we have the opportunity to reassess The Touch. I wouldn't regard it as one of Bergman's greatest works, and Elliott Gould – while he tries hard – seems a little out of place, especially when playing opposite such Bergman veterans as Andersson and von Sydow. However, there's much to commend it, especially for Andersson's performance.

THE DISC

The BFI's release of The Touch is dual-format, with a Region B Blu-ray and a PAL-format Region 2 DVD. A checkdisc of the former was provided for review. Given a X certificate (eighteen and over) for its UK cinema release, The Touch is now rated 15.

Bergman's films are “portrait” rather than “landscape” and he favoured Academy Ratio (1.37:1) for his cinema features for a decade and a half after the start of the widescreen era. Black and white as well – all his films up to the end of the 1960s apart from 1964's Now About These Women (a comedy, and one of his worst films), were monochrome. But even international arthouse auteurs had to get with the programme (to use an expression not current then) and by 1969 and The Passion of Anna, he and Nykvist were making their films in colour and widescreen, usually 1.66:1. The Touch is in 1.85:1, presumably because of the American financing and the possibility (if not the actuality) that the film could play wider in American cinemas than the arthouses which could show 1.37:1 or 1.66:1, As with his other work, Bergman composes his shots quite tightly and I certainly wouldn't recommend watching them cropped to a wider ratio than the intended one. The Blu-ray transfer is derived from a 2K scan of the original negative by the Swedish Film Institute and looks fine. Nykvist's Eastmancolour cinematography shows a bias towards oranges, browns and ochres, and there's some of that in the skin tones, but that's the case with other colour films from this period. Grain is natural and blacks are solid.


The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0. The subtitles are for the Swedish dialogue only. There are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available. Subtitles are also available for the Ingmar Bergman documentary, but not when Elliott Gould is speaking in English, and not on the English-language Liv Ullmann and Sheila Reid interviews.

Ingmar Bergman (55:12) is a 1971 documentary made by Stig Björkman, on the making of The Touch, which gained separate distribution, non-theatrically in the UK. The film alternates a to-camera interview with Bergman with on-set footage. At one point, Björkman's camera distracts Bergman to the point where he requests it to be turned off. In the interview, Bergman discusses his working methods, particularly the writing. A film can come initially from an image – for Persona, it was two women, both wearing hats, comparing their hands, with one speaking and the other silent – and he then fills notebooks with ideas. In a given year, he would usually have about eight weeks' downtime when one film's production ended, and in this time he would write a script, working six days a week. Often he would ask particular actors if they were available at a given time, and if the answer was yes he would write the characters with them in mind to play them. Preparation for the actual shoot normally took two months. There are some extracts from Bergman's previous films, such as The Passion of Anna and Persona. From the latter we see not just the scene derived from that initial image but also the film's prologue, complete with the penis shot which was removed from the version of the film then available in the UK and USA. If you have any interest in Bergman's films, this film is very much worth your time.

The next item is more tangential to The Touch, as its subject wasn't in the film. However, Liv Ullmann is certainly a central figure in both Bergman's life (they were in a relationship which produced a daughter, Linn Ullmann) and films. As part of the BFI's centenary Bergman season, Liv Ullmann was interviewed onstage by Geoff Andrew at the BFI Southbank (71:57). She begins by reading a tribute to Bergman, and as Andrew says it's not easy to follow that. However, the talk ranges over her life and career, as a director as well as an actor. This is an edited version of the full event: clips from films (including Face to Face and Autumn Sonata) have been removed, no doubt for licensing reasons, and the questions from the audience have been replaced by onscreen captions.


Finally, and back to The Touch, is an interview with Sheila Reid (20:39), who has the distinction of being the only British actress to appear in a Bergman film. Her interview starts with her early career in rep and how she met Bergman. He saw her on stage in a supporting role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. When she and others went with him to dinner, he ate only yoghurt. Her scene was shot in the studio in Sweden in one day, plus rehearsals. Now in her eighties, Reid remains busy on television and on stage.

The BFI's booklet runs to sixteen pages plus the cover. It begins with an insightful essay by Geoff Andrew, originally published in Sight & Sound on the reissue of The Touch in 2018. Also in the booklet are full film credits, the original Monthly Film Bulletin review by Jan Dawson from October 1971 (one of the relatively few favourable reviews from the time), credits and notes on the extras, transfer notes and stills.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

Ingmar Bergman's first English-language film is a typically unsparing look at an extramarital affair, starring Elliott Gould and Bibi Andersson.

7

out of 10

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