Karin Vergerus (Bibi Andersson) found that as one door closed another door opened recently when she visited the hospital to see her ailing mother. Alas, she was too late, and told far too curtly by the doctor that the old woman had died, leaving her to spend a minute in contemplation in the room where the corpse lay, taking in the wedding rings on her fingers, and other personal possessions lying on the bedside table. Karin was in a state of shock, the rings pressed onto her by the nurse after she said they'd collect the effects later, and once in the cloakroom she broke down in tears. But someone else entered, a man called David Kovac (Elliott Gould), and he was startled to see her...
That opening sequence was possibly the best in the whole film, for we could see the strain and emotion on Karin, our protagonist, from the off, and the passing of a loved one is something everyone can relate to, hence our hearts went out to her especially in the light of Andersson's direct, disarming performance. And not only that, but we could understand why, in witnessing this display of unfettered grief, David would immediately be fascinated, initially because one presumed he wanted to know what the matter was, but then because he felt a connection to this woman who was trying and failing to hide how upset she was, no matter that she felt none of that herself.
The Touch was writer and director Ingmar Bergman's first film in the English language, a curious tradition that saw non-native English-speaking creatives coaxed into ditching the tongue of their homelands to try out for a wider audience in the Western world, a practice that continues to this day. As ever, or as often anyway, the results are met with a mixed response, and that was the case with this as the cognoscenti who usually embraced Bergman's output found a reason to take against him here, always handy should someone accuse you of the heinous critical crime of liking everything a certain director has ever done since you can point to an example like this and say, "Not everything!"
It makes you look as if you have a measured, intellectual attitude to your tastes and can really think them through, yet with The Touch it was a deeply emotional story, and no amount of high-falutin' discourse and examination could hide the fact Bergman was making something apocalyptic out of a three-way relationship. Not in the way Andrzej Zulawski would make that a literal Armageddon ten years later with Possession, but just as raw and devastating in that it laid waste to all three participants' lives. When Karin agrees to an affair with archaeologist with a harrowing past David behind the back of her husband Andreas (Max von Sydow in his final bow for the director) it is clear it's because she suddenly finds herself regarded as attractive and interesting for the first time in years after being taken for granted by her spouse for so long.
But she is walking into a minefield, because at the heart of this tale was a lack of trust: now that Karin has cheated on him, Andreas cannot rely on her anymore, and now that David is having an affair with someone who would behave like this, he wonders if he has done the right thing and his personal demons loom up to overtake him. In the middle is our heroine, the woman who only wanted to be loved, a basic human need, and discovering there is a whole lot of baggage that comes with doing so for that involves another person, and they can be volatile and difficult to lean on when a crisis arises. That she was the instigator of this crisis is the irony that does not quite excuse her, indeed all three of them act irresponsibly, even cruelly, towards the others whether you believe they are justified or not. All heady stuff, yet Bergman, as was often the case with attempts to broaden the audience, was not entirely at ease with the English language and Gould seemed miscast without his sense of humour to fall back on, but if you could get over the artificiality, there was food for thought and commentary on an uncertain future.
[The BFI have released The Touch on a Blu-ray with extras: a vintage documentary on Bergman, a talk with Liv Ullman, and an interview with Sheila Reid, who plays David's sister in a late scene.]
Undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of cinema, Ingmar Bergman was often accused of being too depressing as his subjects covered the existence (or otherwise) of God and deep-seated marital problems (he himself was married five times), but he always approached them with a sympathetic eye. Among his most memorable films were Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal (with its unforgettable chess game with Death), Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring (the inspiration for Last House on the Left), Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. He also made international stars of Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.