For American audiences, one of the challenges inherent to watching Ingmar Bergman’s extraordinary psychological dramas is reading past the subtitles—Bergman wrote such dense dialogue in his native Swedish language that one must assume something was lost in translation. Therefore, whenever something sounds arch or false in, say, the American-release version of Wild Strawberries (1957), it’s easy to imagine that the words sounded more natural in their original rendering. All of this is a long way of saying that the tricky issue of Bergman’s verbal style is unavoidable when discussing The Touch, one of only two features the director made in English. Although the film has all of Bergman’s customary gravitas, intensity, nuance, and sensitivity, it also contains stiff dialogue that sounds more like a series of clinical psychiatric diagnoses than actual words that actual humans might say to each other. Strange as it might sound to fault a great filmmaker for infusing his work with erudition and intelligence, The Touch is an especially frosty piece of business.
Bergman regular Bibi Andersson plays Karin Vergerus, a pretty Swedish housewife and mother whose world starts to unravel when her own mother dies. Immediately after receiving the bad news, she encounters David Kovac (Elliot Gould), an American archaeologist visiting Sweden. He’s professionally acquainted with Karin’s husband, Andreas (played, of course, by Max von Sydow), so Karin soon finds herself sitting across a dinner table from the man she saw at her lowest moment. David surprises Karin by saying that he fell in love with her at first sight, and even though that should have been a red flag—the fact that he was turned on by her pain correctly indicates that David has issues—Karin commences an affair with David. Per his rarefied narrative approach, Bergman is only marginally interested in soap-opera complications, such as how the lovers conceal their trysts, because he’s after a referendum on marriage and personhood. What was missing from Karin’s union that she finds by spending time with David? Did Andreas’ condescension push his wife away? How did Karin recognize that David was compatible in the sense of being just as emotionally troubled as her? It says a lot that at one point, Anna describes herself and David as being “painfully united.”
Had The Touch been made by anyone except Bergman, it might have seemed groundbreaking and revelatory, an adultery story that asks deep questions about whether it’s truly possible for people to connect with each other. Yet Bergman had already spent decades probing the human psyche prior to making The Touch, so the film seems like a minor entry in his magnificent filmography. The Touch has incisive moments, notably the scene when Karin catalogs her own physical flaws after revealing herself to David for the first time, so it’s not as if Bergman’s gifts suddenly evaporated. Nonetheless, the transition to English removed less than it added, and Gould’s greatest attribute as a performer—his rumpled naturalism—is inhibited by the requirement to deliver reams of artistically structured dialogue. Combined with the picture’s almost unrelentingly humorless tone and a somewhat pointless ending, all of these shortcomings make The Touch unmemorable.
The Touch: FUNKY