The Touch

(Beröringen, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden/USA, 1971)


Films that begin, abruptly and disconcertingly, with the death of a parent have a special, almost mythological force.


Three such films come to mind: John Cassavetes’ sublime Gloria (1980), in which a little boy hears his entire family being blasted to death in a neighbouring apartment; Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna (1979), where a teenage boy’s stepfather disappears at the point of a sudden heart attack; and The Touch, in which the adult Karin (Bibi Andersson) arrives at hospital 15 minutes after her mother has passed away.


Ingmar Bergman (who based this opening on a similar, real incident of ‘bad timing’) conveys the desolating effect of this event via a simple but extraordinary figure of style: the positioning of the central figure against a completely bare wall. This image (which today conjures the cinema of Philippe Garrel) will recur throughout The Touch, and every time it has the effect of a tabula rasa, a stripping-away of story and place, a return to ground zero.


Before this moment, the film has set out in a direction uncommon in Bergman: everyday life, natural colour, mundane movements of driving, parking, walking, a banal atmospheric soundscape. This sets the pattern of the work: each time we approach what seems like a familiar station of quotidian realism, we are wrenched away from it – plunged, instead, into comical irony (such as the dysfunctional use of a vacuum cleaner), or stark morbidity.


Likewise, intertwined with that, every time we think we have arrived at the scene of a universal human soap opera (the Eternal Triangle, no less), we are disconcertingly lost in ambiguities, ellipses, a sudden passage to abstraction, or what might seem overwrought symbolism or metaphor.


But The Touch is not a film you can just “read out” or decode symbolically and thematically. (Karin comes back into frame – not once but twice across the film! – to gaze at an covered runestone of Angarn church that goads with its fascinating design, enigmatic inscription, and completely ordinary memorial significance.) It’s truly a work of figuration – less drama than dramatic essay, less representation than a probing of representability, less storytelling than an arrangement of optional, notional scenes that might or might not add up to a coherent story. (We never know, for example, when characters are telling the truth or lying, spinning a story – and this creates an enormous hole when we arrive, for example, at an extremely mysterious brother/sister relation.)


I find it to be one of Bergman’s most radical films on this level – a subtle level, it seems, since so few “get it” in that way (whereas they have no problem grasping such figuration in, say, Pedro Costa, where the method is so pronounced and underlined). It’s not an empty or merely formal abstraction, either – the kind of calligraphic “parametric play” we get, for instance, laid over the text of Marguerite Duras’ Suzanna Andler (2020) by Benoît Jacquot.


The Touch’s opening shock announces its deepest subject. Karin has just lost a mother; as she herself is a mother of two children, she must now, as it were, fully step forward to fill that role, that outline. But she must also be a mother to her lover, the difficult David (Elliot Gould) – they often fall into iconic poses where he is nestled in her breasts or cradled in her lap as she comforts him. And, in the course things, Karin will also become pregnant.


At the film’s core is the discovered statue of a Madonna – later found to contain thousands of bugs of an extinct species, now awoken and eating away this effigy from within. It will crumble to dust at any moment – a moment we won’t see, among the many things we don’t see, and cannot verify, here.


Mother: an impossible place to inhabit. The Touch is devoted to the agony of that impossibility for Karin – for anyone. Cinema – Garrel is again, the modern touchstone – has sometimes offered us insight into the melancholia of an adult man suddenly bereft of a father, caught between the twin chimera of his yet-to-arrive maturity and his lost, childhood innocence. Screen comedy has very often played with men’s inability to live up to the masculine ideal (see The Pirate, 1948). But it’s much rarer, even within the genre of melodrama, to see this “existential” crisis played out, with such strength and insight, in relation to a woman and the culturally all-pervasive figure of the mother.


Why is Bergman drawn, in the first place, to the ordinariness of the situation (and the initial style of naturalistic presentation) in The Touch, and to the all-too-familiar premise of Karin’s marital infidelity? It’s the same question posed for François Truffaut when he made The Soft Skin (1964) and The Woman Next Door (1981). Perhaps, in Bergman’s case, because it was something he so often usually fled for the sake of his own, inimitable brand of either rarefied histrionics or stylised, operatic comedy. Bergman works well with a certain high-art type of melodrama. His more modernist tendency also eschews the everyday: Scenes from a Marriage (1973) presents only the highest and lowest points of its featured relationship, crammed suffocatingly into a televisual frame. Faithless (2000), directed by Liv Ullmann from Bergman’s script, offers the same deal.


But in The Touch Bergman faces the ordinary head-on, or at least tries to – and the film is the record of that attempt, that essaying. Max von Sydow as Karin’s husband, Andreas, is the solid, stolid pole of (relatively) unchanging everydayness in this tale – and Bergman offers a touching portrait of his difficult dilemma, in relatively conventional dramatic terms. But that’s a sidelong, passing regard, not the agonised (and agonising) core of the project.


Everything Sven Nykvist’s camera glances at in this realm of the everyday veers off instantly into mediated traces, clichés of the good life, domestic bliss: this Real cannot be photographed, cannot be grasped or touched. On this level, The Touch joins hands with another prime, disconcerting essay-drama of the 1960s, Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965) – where happiness, like motherhood, is a floating image, figure, myth, a dream that Varda and her characters tremblingly inhabit; another film of strange ellipses and ambiguities in the guise of just one more tale of infidelity.


I did not want to hit off this piece by fencing with The Touch’s bad critical reputation, or the frightfully low place it holds in its maker’s own memoirs. None of that matters. Personally, it is a film I have held dear since first seeing it on television in the 1970s, when I was still a young teenager: something of the shock of its elements and their arrangement communicated itself to me even then, in a truncated aspect ratio and with rude ad breaks, presented as sleazy erotica on a late-night slot by host Chelsea Brown.


All the nonsense that has flown around for 50 years about Bergman being unable to make a film in English (Michelangelo Antonioni had to endure this indignity, too), that Gould’s American acting style escaped his control, that the tone is misjudged and the story below par for such an auteur … it all misses the genuine risk, the true exploration at the heart of The Touch.

MORE Bergman: Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal

© Adrian Martin June 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search