Until now, The Touch had been one of the hardest to find of the films directed by Ingmar Bergman. I’ve always had an ambivalence towards his films, preferring those that have elements of surrealism in them like Persona or Hour of the Wolf over his dramatic chamber pieces. He also has always come off as an insufferable snob in almost every interview I’ve ever read (and also was a literal Nazi in his youth.) Nevertheless, he is a filmmaker whose work you need to see and know.
It may be hard to any fathom, but in 1971 Elliott Gould was arguably the biggest movie star on the planet, having just appeared in M*A*S*H and Getting Straight. The fact that he isn’t today just shows have much society has devolved in the years since. Bergman had toyed around with a film in English for many years and had made a one-picture deal all the way back in 1964. Gould was selected after Bergman saw Getting Straight, although ABC was pushing him to choose Paul Newman, Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman instead.
The film itself marked a change in Bergman’s work: The Touch was more of an out and out love story, while his usual dark chamber pieces often dealt with the heaviest of themes, such as death, sex, faith or the lack of faith, etc. Along with Gould, the film stars two of Bergman’s most frequent collaborators, Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow, as a middle-class married couple. Gould plays an American archaeologist who starts a passionate affair with Bibi’s Karin.
Overall it’s quite much what you would expect for Bergman: it’s a pretty bleak love story that unfolds at a medium pace. It has allusions to the Bible, and in the case of Gould’s character to the Holocaust. It’s often said that many of Bergman’s films deal with the director trying to exorcise his own past as a Nazi sympathizer.
As you might expect, the performances are strong, especially Andersson and von Sydow, but Gould seems completely out of his element throughout, and bizarrely even has a slightly wooden delivery. Gould has been very candid that the initial reading of the first sex scene gave him a migraine. However, despite his reservations about some of the script, he felt so honoured to be asked to be the first American star in a Bergman film that he agreed. He still speaks fondly about his experience of making the film and considers it a highlight of his career, even though The Touch was a massive box-office and critical bomb.
BFI has decided to use the Swedish-English version, although it was released in many places in English only. Bergman himself preferred the Swedish-English version, hence the choice, but it’s a shame they didn’t include both. The special features include a making-of that was filmed at the time and an interview with Sheila Reid, who was one of the co-stars of the film and also the only British actress to appear in a Bergman film. Lastly there is newly filmed Q&A at BFI Southbank with Liv Ullmann, who doesn’t appear in this film but was one of Bergman’s most frequent collaborators. As always with BFI, there is a booklet with essays on the film by various writers.