Ingmar Bergman died ten years ago in July. At the time, it felt like the passing of a whole era of filmmaking. In its front page devoted to the “Master”, The Guardian used that stock picture of Bergman – in profile, black and white, wearing a beret. No image better encapsulates the ‘serious European auteur’ archetype than this. Works such as Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957), Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander, 1982) and, perhaps most of all, Persona (1966) represent a cinema that distils the complexities of existence into pure and uncompromising drama.
For the Anglophone world, especially, Bergman was the high priest of foreign film. This may partly explain why a little-seen English language film of his did not feature in any of the posthumous tributes written in 2007.
The Touch has rarely bothered anyone since its release in 1971. At the time, it was dismissed as a minor lapse, soon forgotten as the Swede advanced into one of his most celebrated periods with Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers) in 1972 and Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes From A Marriage, 1973) a year later. It is rarely screened in retrospectives, and is one of only two Bergman films never to have been given a DVD release; the other, the 1950 romantic thriller Sånt hander inte här (This Can’t Happen Here), was actively suppressed by the director, so ashamed was he of the finished product. Far from being something to hide, however, The Touch deserves a place beside the director’s greatest achievements.
In the film, Bergman regulars Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow play a married couple, Karin and Andreas, whose bourgeois idyll is interrupted by the arrival of David (Elliott Gould), an American archaeologist working on an excavation of an old church. From their first meeting, David sets about seducing Karin, and it is not long before she finds herself in his flat. This scene has all the nervous energy of two people who know they are embarking on something they shouldn’t – it’s excruciatingly real. They blabber about trivialities before Karin suggests they take off their clothes “and see what happens”. They’re both in their mid-thirties: Karin is embarrassed of her body, afraid that it is not as nice as it used to be; David, meanwhile, worries about disappointing her in bed. The passion that Bergman quietly establishes is one of two souls drawn to one another without knowing why – or, more likely, not wanting to know.
What is both fascinating and frustrating about the film is how Bergman confounds what we think we know about these characters. David is introduced as a force of nature who propositions Karin at a dinner party while Andreas is making the coffee. This is Gould in his element, pulsating with predatory intent. When they meet alone, however, he is awkward and withdrawn. There is an ugliness in him that manifests in both abuse and self-shaming. He says he has lost his family in the Holocaust; later, we meet his sister in London, and don’t know what to believe.
More interesting still is Karin. She battles to maintain her poise as she lives two separate lives: dutiful wife and mother in one world; lover to erratic, wilful David in the other. The film never judges her. Much of this quality comes from the intelligence of Andersson’s performance: she has a composure that, in other actors, might be seen as icy and aloof, but in her is profoundly sympathetic. Her character is one who has up until this point lived a life according to rules that ensure contentment and stability. Andersson makes us believe in Karin’s choices – even as we fear the worst.
Language is an unavoidable issue in The Touch. At one point, Karin remarks on how difficult it is to describe feelings in a language that isn’t a mother tongue. Bergman doesn’t bother to account for why the couple played by Andersson and von Sydow converse in English when alone (although, in another, rarely seen, version of the film, these scenes were shot in Swedish and the rest in English). As incidental as it is, this imposed language has a power of its own, enhancing the sense that their marriage has drifted to something businesslike, passionless. The inequality of communication between native and non-native speakers reinforces a central concern of The Touch: the pain of never understanding those we care for. Words themselves are loaded with confusion and double meaning. Even the film’s title – implying tenderness, intimacy – is subverted by David’s cutting remark that Andreas’ love for Karin is “so goddamn touching”.
The title also gives us a way of thinking about the look of the film. A criticism levelled at The Touch is that it lacks the visual flare of Bergman’s more famous films. Compared to the vivid colours of his next picture, Cries and Whispers, The Touch has a muted palette. The editing is often abrupt, and Sven Nykvist’s camera is reactive to a dizzying degree. Unlike the painterly framing of Cries or Fanny and Alexander, this is a film grounded in the world’s materiality. The myriad shots of hands – lifeless, clenched, compassionate, violent – emphasise tactility. We want to scratch the surface, go deeper. But, like the knight in The Seventh Seal (incidentally, von Sydow’s first appearance in a Bergman film; The Touch would be his last), we discover to our horror that there is nothing there, only silence.
There is a reason why The Touch merits the curiosity of British cinephiles in particular. A pivotal character who enters in the film’s final stages is played by Sheila Reid, the only British actor to have appeared in a Bergman film.
Reid, who, at 79, is still acting on stage and television, spoke to me about her memories of working with Bergman: “He had a way of unlocking tremendous emotion and free energy.” How so? Reid shows me a photograph of herself and Bergman on set. The director is standing behind her; they are transfixed on a sight ahead of them, and Bergman has his hand on Reid’s shoulder. “Here,” she says, “you can see the energy moving from one body to another.”
Reid first worked with Bergman when he came over to London in 1970 to direct Laurence Olivier’s company in Hedda Gabler. She played Thea Elvsted to Maggie Smith’s Hedda. Yet, rather than casting the Oscar winner, Bergman created a role for Reid in The Touch. (Smith, Reid tells me, expressed what may have been a tinge of jealousy with some collegial teasing: “So you’re in a Bergman film are you, Sheila? Fancy.”)
In a brief but powerful scene, Karin tracks down David’s flat in London. He isn’t home, but a woman called Sara invites her in. Sara says she’s David’s sister. Reid, a dainty Scot, is perhaps an unlikely fit to play the sister of Gould’s New York Jew.
I ask her what Bergman saw in her. “I think he saw a loneliness in me, desperation,” she says. “It was a partly traumatic time for me, personally, and he must have sensed that. I was still staggered to be asked.”
According to Reid, Bergman described the film as a carefully constructed mosaic. In this brief scene, however, it all falls apart. The flat is sparse and sterile. Sara says she is moving, but doesn’t know where to – she is drifting, aimless.
Although Reid is sure that her character is the sister she claims to be, I feel the situation to be deeply ambiguous. It becomes painfully obvious that Sara is an extreme version of Karin, that her dependence on David is total. As the film cuts between their faces, transfixed but not in direct conversation, we’re reminded of how Bergman melts together the faces of nurse and patient in Persona. Sara tells Karin that David is “never going to leave me”, when he clearly already has. Karin, horrified by this image of herself, is now free to reject David and regain control of her life.
That so much is expressed in such a short scene demonstrates the precision of Bergman’s method. Here, as elsewhere in The Touch, power is derived from minimalism. Bergman permitted his actors to breathe, live and feel their characters, making the experience seem more moving and vital than the Bovary-by-numbers plot ought to have allowed. Reid is rightly proud of her work with Bergman; although, like many people, she hasn’t seen the film in decades. The Touch is a truly humane masterpiece – its erasure from the Bergman canon is a real loss.