Is Ingmar Bergman’s Worst Movie The Touch?
Touch (1971) was a legendary Swedish author Ingmar bergmanfirst English language film of. Coming out of an avant-garde period, surrealist fantasies like Hour of the wolf (1968) and Anne’s passion (1969), he marked a new period in his work of more stripped down and restrained chamber dramas such as Scenes from a wedding (1973) and Autumn Sonata (1978). Touch is perched uncomfortably between these two sensibilities – minimal romantic drama with opaque, frustratingly distancing characters – and has been let go with utter contempt. A box office bomb that was almost universally shattered, even Bergman himself later denounced it as his worst effort, claiming it represents “my core.” It may be melodramatic and rather unsatisfying in some ways, but such a harsh review denies the film’s haunting appeal. As in the best of Bergman’s work, TouchThe quiet observation of his characters approaches something really profound, something almost ineffable, about human behavior.
Although initially sold as an end-to-end romance about an adulterous couple, the film is more accurately seen as a psychodrama about a woman, who, among other things, engages in a romantic affair. This woman is Swedish bourgeois housewife Karin, played by regular Bergman Bibi andersson. Her life with her surgeon husband Andreas (another constant collaborator of Bergman Max von Sydow) and their two young children is well described by Nietzsche’s term “miserable contentment”. As she goes comfortably about her daily routine, a wacky jingle plays on the soundtrack as cheerful as it is squeaky. Once everyone is gone for the day, she is left in silence and not sure what to do with herself. An escape from its emptiness soon lies with David, an American Jewish architect played by Elliott Gould.
Their business is special. Two tragedies give way to their chance encounter in a hospital, and they engage nervously with each other despite their own neuroses. David has disturbing outbursts of violence, and the first time they sleep together, Karin goes over a list of her own physical insecurities. The impenetrability of their relationship is reinforced by the abrasive narrative style. There is an economy of storytelling, where Bergman only communicates the bare minimum of information necessary, and often much less than that. Many scenes are fragmented, starting and ending very suddenly, so the viewer must constantly reorient themselves and decide individually how each scene fits into the larger picture. The decisions and actions of the characters, as impenetrable as they are, are never explained in the slightest, leaving the interpretation entirely to the viewer. It feels like these characters are icebergs, only the very tips of which are fully revealed.
Perhaps then, the film fits less in the romantic genre and more in the mystery: the mystery of who exactly these characters are. Karin and David have very little chemistry and don’t seem to be having much fun together, so why are they seeing each other? There are many clues left throughout, but none of them add up quite definitively. David appears to be facing trauma. It is revealed that, in his youth, he was one of the only members of his family to escape alive from Nazi Germany. His erratic behavior (which also involves suicidal tendencies) can be read as the survivor’s toll of guilt. He is identified by Karin as hating himself and by extension everyone around him, so it is possible that by loving Karin he is trying to learn to love himself. These connections can be made, but Bergman leaves everything shrouded in uncertainty.
Karin is even more complex, even more enigmatic. Much of the film’s striking Eastmancolor cinematography by Sven Nykvist is made up of intimate close-ups of her face, making it clear that her psychological impulses are the main focal point of the film. Scenes involving her husband Andreas punctuate these close-ups of jarring wide shots, which intensely communicate the couple’s distance. Although this is an unexpressed feeling, it can easily be understood that their relationship ended in their cushy lifestyle. The aforementioned suffocating routine sequences highlight Karin’s longing for David as a longing for something new and real, but it’s not as simple as that. Andreas explains at one point that Karin hates making her own decisions more than anything else, which implies a certain degree of dependence on her in their marriage. Karin uses the affair as a way to break this habit, gradually becoming a self-sufficient person as she accompanies David, until even he can no longer hold her back. This would make his character a kind of prototype for Liv Ullmannthe character of later Scenes from a wedding, which similarly uses the breakdown of a relationship as a catalyst to build itself. Also true to Bergman’s obsession with role-switching characters, Andreas and David are increasingly hampered by Karin’s independence.
These accounts still ignore the religious imagery Bergman associates with the characters. Contrary to all the positive effects the affair can have on Karin, there is a moment when she strokes an engraving of a snake on her first outing with David, seemingly announcing it as a temptation away from her backyard. Eden. In his archeology, David discovered an ancient statue of the Virgin Mary, which becomes a symbol associated with Karin. Trying to express her attraction to David, she tells him that he might just be her newborn baby. When Karin gets pregnant, she and the viewer find themselves in a position where they don’t really know who it is.
The success of Touch lies in these mysteries. It never interferes with the characters by injecting obvious answers about who they are or what they do, choosing instead to sit and watch quietly, long takes focused on their choices and emotions. These mysteries were probably also the downfall of the film when it was originally released. Perhaps Bergman was too obscure for most, and such a detachment from the characters’ motivations made their drama truly melodramatic. But then Bergman slyly draws attention to this possibility in the film itself. When Karin and Andreas ask their son what a movie he just saw was like, he replies: “Not very well. Just a lot of romance. May be Touch is romance from a child’s fresh perspective, where all identification with the characters is removed until all that’s left is to see a case as it really is, in all its messy complexity and its remote uncertainty.
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