The Touch December 28, 2020
Max Von Sydow
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
efore Ingmar Bergman made Scenes from a Marriage (1973), an unusually detailed look at a once-happy marriage’s slow death, he made The Touch (1971). The Touch is also centrally about a once-happy marriage’s slow death, but it spends more time covering the life and the demise of the adulterous affair which damns it. Scenes from a Marriage is often praised for its emotional realism — how it finishes
without a proverbial stone unturned. The Touch, by contrast, leaves us hankering for more than it gives us — a better understanding of its doomed union; an affair that felt as all-consuming as it’s suggested to be. The movie has long been considered a “lesser” Bergman project, though some notable contrarians say it’s an unheralded success for the director. I think of it more as a worthwhile stepping stone. It's an ultimately unsuccessful stab at dramatizing a narrative subject Bergman would soon largely master, made additionally rewarding because of a moving star turn from Bibi Andersson.
In The Touch, Andersson plays Karin, the homemaker wife of Andreas (Max Von Sydow), a doctor. They’ve been married for 15 years now; they have a couple of kids and seem to be reasonably happy with the way their lives have turned out. They enliven the idea of a well-adjusted family. But the opening scenes of the movie suggest we are meeting these characters at a transitional time. (And, in marriage movies, transition often begets trouble.) The Touch
opens with the death of Karin’s mother. Then, a couple of scenes later, Karin and Andreas are having over for dinner a hirsute American archeologist in town named David (Elliott Gould) — the type of man who has the gall to tell Karin after spending just a little time with her that he thinks he’s in love. (For him, it was a first sight sort of thing.)
Karin is able to superficially adjust to a life without her mother but not, it seems, to one leaving untapped the possibility of sleeping with David. (The death, though, seems to have awoken something in her — a renewed idea that you shouldn't let your desires pass you by because, someday, time will have run out.) Karin soon throws herself into an affair with this outsider — an outsider who proves to have a short temper (a manifestation, it’s suggested, of unaddressed familial trauma) and who may not offer her that much besides
simply providing her an escape from domestic drudgery.
Karin has been living comfortably inside of a predictable routine for so long now that she’s lost her enthusiasm for it. David’s instability, paired with an almost-too-strong passion for his new mistress, would strike most as turn-offs; but for Karin, the traits are almost addictive. She is both kept on her toes and can know for sure that the person opposite her in bed is fervid for her. In her current domestic life, love is assumed but not so often zealously expressed. With that fire burned out and paired with an existential regimen that doesn’t give a meaningful spark to replace it, Karin is nearly consumed by her lover. For many months into their affair, she cannot see anything but David, to the point that it seems she has not given very much thought to what could happen if Andreas and their kids were to find out what was going on.
The Touch is grounded by Andersson’s performance, which wonderfully conveys the excitement of a new romance but what that might look like when the one experiencing it knows they aren’t technically supposed to be in it. In the first few scenes covering Karin and David’s affair, the former asserts, though without suggesting she’s going to change her mind, that she knows that this isn’t a very good idea, and maybe pursuing David in the first place was some way of subconsciously trying to bolster her self-esteem. Is this all her way of proving to herself that she can do something like this — not stay confined in her household role? As we watch Andersson, we can almost hear an argumentative inner dialogue, even in the brief stretch in the movie where Karin has decisively lost herself. It’s an affecting, emotionally articulate performance that has a rather devastating quality in the last few scenes.
Not much else in The Touch is as well-defined as Andersson, however. Although her portrayal is almost enough to fill in what we don’t see, Bergman leaves scenes of her and Andreas’ marriage too much on the sidelines. Even though we’re meant to think of it as a textbook “happy” marriage, we aren’t given very much aside from our ideas of what their happiness had looked like before we met them. It feels one-noted. Sometimes, though, Bergman ushers in a memorable visual insight that gives the movie some needed emotional dynamism. In one scene, which follows a long period where we haven’t seen Andreas on screen, the seemingly sudden distance that has grown between him and Karin is reflected by shots where she is in his office, waiting for a phone call from David, while he is watching her from the dining room. They’re shot from each other’s vantage points by Bergman’s favored cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist (the film is on the whole pretty to look at), and they’re made to appear so far from each other that their faces look fuzzed.
Sydow is reliably good, though he doesn’t get to do much besides convincingly suffer. Gould, who was one of the biggest American male stars at the time, conversely is misplaced, struggling to make David’s torturedness feel real and not a characteristic written for him. (I think most of this gaucheness, though, has to do with the screenplay, which is so literal about why David is so emotionally unsteady that it’s almost inevitable we think his outward anguish appears labored.) The Touch might have been better if it left David and the affair itself off camera entirely, letting the ramifications sneak into Karin and Andreas’ household like invisible intruders. Of course, that was the route Scenes from a Marriage took when infidelity entered the picture. Consider The Touch a trial run. C+