The Touch

The past brings up unexpected treasures in Ingmar Bergman’s 1971 The Touch. This delightful tale of a woman’s journey towards inner freedom was wildly underestimated by critics when it was originally released – and often wildly misinterpreted – perhaps because of the life it portrayed. This is our gain: a new Bergman to discover, another facet of his work, rediscovered pleasures. And one of these pleasures is his evident tenderness for the main character.

In The Touch, Bergman says it all with flowers – a theme that runs through the film. It’s a story Bergman has said was his first love story, and which may have been about a great love of his, Ingrid Karlebo – they were eventually married in 1971, the year The Touch was released, and stayed married for 24 years, until her death.

The Touch opens at a key turning point in a young woman’s life. Karin Vergérus (Bibi Andersson) visits her mother (Barbro Hiort af Ornäs) in hospital, only to find her parent has just died. It is an outwardly subdued moment but inwardly intense. The camera cuts away to details which are entirely subjective – hands, the mother’s belongings, the view out of a window. At heightened moments in one’s life, senses alert, small details become vivid. The texture of the images here is similarly striking – against subdued, dull backgrounds, whether light or dark, details pop up in stark detail – just like the flowers which punctuate the story.

Karin hides in a coatroom to cry. She is disturbed by a hirsute stranger, a bear of a man, David Kovac (Elliott Gould). David too has just experienced an intense life moment, which is revealed much later. They only exchange a glimpse and a few words, and for Karin, in her grief, there is no significance to this. But one day, Karin’s husband – a surgeon, Andreas (Max von Sydow) – brings the man to their spotless home for a family meal. David is an American archaeologist living in London. There are yellow roses on the table, heavy with symbolism. Yellow roses traditionally signify infidelity or a love in decline; it’s a visual motif Scorsese used too, a few years later, in The Age of Innocence, with a similar intent.

Andreas is kind to David, gives him time and attention, smiles, and shows him family photos. Those photos also feature Karin’s mother. Karin’s mother was still young, and died prematurely (in real life, there was only a fourteen year difference between the two actresses, Andersson and Hiort af Ornäs). The husband’s kindness towards David, and the reason for the invitation – in part compassion – become clear much later on, as relationships between the different characters unravel.

Karin gives David a tour of the garden, mentioning how much she and her husband love to cultivate it. It’s an autumnal film. As Karin and the visitor walk around, roses are still flowering. Soon the apples will fall from the trees, and Karin and David will have started an affair. The small town where the family lives is a provincial one, and secrets cannot remain secret for long.

David works on an archaeological dig outside an early medieval church, where a concealed wooden sculpture of a Madonna and child has just been found. He shows Karin the still inaccessible artefact, partially visible through gaps in stonework.

Karin and David consummate their affair awkwardly, in David’s dingy, dark flat. The walls are badly painted in dark sage green, the paintwork on the doors looks filthy. But on a table, there is a vase filled with dark red roses.

Later in their love story, they return to the Madonna, finally prised out of her tomb of stone. She is crumbling from within – the larvae in the ancient wood, starved of air, moisture and light for centuries, had lain dormant. They are now coming to life, nourished by the very fabric of the Madonna. David sees this as decay – but what if it is a rebirth, and it is time for the figure of the Madonna to crumble away, and let Karin’s life take its course?

What Karin and David find in each other is open to speculation. Perhaps there is a bit of Bergman in each of them. Bergman is said to have once admitted “I am very much aware of my own double self… The well-known one is very under control; everything is planned and very secure. The unknown one can be very unpleasant. I think this side is responsible for all the creative work — he is in touch with the child. He is not rational; he is impulsive and extremely emotional. Perhaps it is not even a ‘he,’ but a ‘she.’ “

When, out of the blue, David slaps Karin – and it is a shocking moment – she is not frightened or appalled; she seems to experience this as the needy impulse of a dependent child, and pities him. David on the other hand, seems to despise in Karin the very things that attract him. Her straightforward outlook on life, her routines, her disciplined approach – even towards tedious housekeeping – all those things he reproaches her. A bouquet of slightly striped carnations is in shot – the symbol of love no longer reciprocated.

At one point, Karin – perhaps with the need to feel something acutely – presses her hand into broken glass. Broken glass also appears in Bergman’s other films, like Cries and Whispers and Persona – each time with a different psychological intent and a different narrative function. There is also a scene where husband and wife, side by side, face a mirror – or rather, the husband makes his wife stand in front of the mirror, next to him. Such imagery recurs in Bergman’s work, each time signifying a moment of truth, or alleged truth, and often unwelcome.

The film is filled with little details and allusions. It’s not just the language of flowers. There is a moment when Karin and her husband Andreas are in their garden, wearing matching clothes, and picking up fallen apples. It is the first time we see Karin lie to him directly. There is no shadow of guilt. In another moment, Andreas is reading a crime novel, Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Dolphin, and it feels like an in-joke. There is a cheerfully facetious side to Bergman. Another pleasure is the seemingly extraneous noise – when the lovers meet, there is frequently construction noise in the background, or ominous church bells – gloomy church bells reminiscent of The Seventh Seal. Karin has to journey through darkness before she finds light.

Bergman’s work lends itself to misinterpretation: his symbolism is at times ambiguous; difficult scenes are shown without apparent judgment.

When David eventually leaves Karin for good, and returns to London, she decides to visit him – not to resume their relationship, but to know the truth. Why did he leave? Karin’s husband tells her that if she travels to London, then their marriage is over – but she is steadfast, resolute. She continues on her forward path and finds lucidity in a surreal conversation with a woman who says she is David’s sister (Sheila Reid). Karin is surprised her former lover has a sister, believing he had lost all his family in the Holocaust. And yet, he had explained to her that his father had sent him, his sister and his mother away to the United States, thus saving them while all the rest of his family were killed.

The sister guesses that Karin is pregnant. There is talk of a congenital disorder. It is an odd and creepy moment, tonally at odds with the rest of the film, gothic, almost menacing. The unease and darkness surrounding David are now tangible. It is an effective scene, but odd in other ways – why is Bergman’s troubled protagonist Jewish, why that contrast of his darkness with Andersson’s lightness, why is the sister witch-like, almost announcing a curse on a child yet to be born? What was Bergman’s rationale – does he do David justice, or does he exploit his history?

Karin’s brief time in London is an epiphany. While David’s confidence and affectations were anything but, Karin finds inner freedom. Even if she loves David, her path is set. Visibly pregnant, she wakes up alone in her neat house in Sweden – alone but not lonely.
There is a certain streamlined simplicity to this tale, and visually too, which could be mistaken for slightness. This version of The Touch, which features dialogue in both English and Swedish, is one that had been thought lost. The better-known version, distributed in the U.S., is entirely in English. The bilingual version feels more naturalistic, with the Swedish characters speaking to each other in their own language, and it is an important touch because the film strives to feel naturalistic, almost documentary-like in its choice of settings and compositions.

There is a coda. David has freed himself from his demons, or so he says. He returns. The former lovers meet in a greenhouse – the theme of plant life continues – then walk in an autumnal park. Karin is carrying books – a profound change in a woman who has so far been seen purely focused on housewifely tasks – she is on her way to a class. Her sense of being equal to herself, shines through. She calmly refuses him. He becomes angry, accuses her of bourgeois conventionality, again. He is pushy. Her books fall to the ground. He stomps off. Karin, heavily pregnant, picks up her books. The film cuts to black. There are no end credits.
It might seem like an abrupt end – but it is not. It is a delightfully ironic ending, the stuff of novellas. One should never take too seriously a self-absorbed lover.

The Touch (1971)
Director/Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist
Cast: Bibi Andersson, Elliott Gould, Max von Sydow, Sheila Reid, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs, Maria Nolgard, Staffan Hallerstam

Originally published in MyFilmClub, February 2018