27 August 2008

The Touch (1971)

Written & Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Full credits from IMDb

A little ways into The Touch, Bergman’s disowned and largely unseen English-language debut (screened at BAM for a day in a pinkened print borrowed from Elliott Gould), a teenage-or-so boy comes home from a night out. “Did you like the movie?” his father asks. “No,” he answers. “Too much hugging and kissing.” The problem with The Touch itself, on the other hand, is not so much its copious lovemaking, but that the hugging and kissing amounts to very little.

Sticking out among Bergman regulars, Gould stars as an archaeologist on a dig in Sweden, where he befriends his doctor, Max von Sydow (in an uncharacteristically quasi-comic performance), and bemorethanfriends the doctor’s wife, Bibi Anderson. (Gould is excavating a statue of Madonna, as he will soon excavate Anderson’s hidden passions!) A dark, curly-haired Jew amid fair-haired Swedes, who speaks in that condescending native-to-non-native-speaker tone, Gould seems to have been cast, in large part, for his appearance—his character plays a disrupting force, the dark stranger upending the Scandinavians’ domestic order.

Though it’s a bit of a stretch to call that order “upended”. Beyond the language spoken, this film departs from Bergman’s moviemaking M.O. most strikingly in that most of its characters seem largely content for much of the film. (Less strikingly, but notable, it’s so ‘70s, from its hairstyles and fashions to its household gizmos.) The Touch even includes a zippy montage, scored to bouncy pop music (!), in which Anderson, giddied by the attentions of another man, tries on a series of outfits. (Woody Allen seems to have recreated it near the end of the recent Vicky Cristina Barcelona.) It must be speaking Swedish that ordinarily makes Bergman so dreary?

But, as the film opens with a sobbing fit following the death of Anderson’s mother, the director clues us into the fact that such bliss won’t last. Soon enough Gould reveals another side of himself: churlish, loutish, violent and feral. He slams doors, breaks furniture, tears down posters, makes love like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet (“don’t look at me!”) and slaps women; in contrast to the Swedes’ gentle intellectualism, he’s a man of temper tantrums. Those primitive Americans!

At first, I thought this might be a knock at American culture, maybe even a sly rebuke of its post-Bonnie & Clyde filmmaking, but as the film drags on toward the two hour mark it doesn’t feel like Bergman has any such commentary in mind. These are merely scenes from a marriage (wink wink), and an affair, which Bergman uses to explore modernity’s neuroses through a romantic lens darkly: self-loathing and its destructive effects; the inability to make decisions and accept their consequences; and how provincialism’s ideals, like habit, marriage and children, can’t protect their adherents from the corrupting influences that can invade insular small-town life.

Bergman might seem the right fit for such themes, but he fumbles. The Touch is second-rate Bergman—not that that’s much of an insult. The acting, of course, is exceptional and Sven Nykvist deftly handles the camera, but scenes of laid-out themes and psychoanalysis only weigh down the characters—and the film. “It’s hard to live two lives.” “You hate yourself and so you hate me.” “All of my family died in concentration camps.” And on and on. Is it because Bergman’s dialogue, when spoken in English, can’t get away with the pretension that his Swedish usually masks? Or is that the director was insecure working in another language?

Either way, The Touch feels too American, applying some of this country’s more questionable filmmaking tendencies, particularly blatancy. In contrast, in the middle of the film, Bergman covers a six-month interval by showing Gould and Anderson in direct address, reading letters sent. Then, later, Bergman reveals the excavated statue to be infested with termitic beetles, destroying it from the inside out. That’s the kind of Bergman—the maverick of form, the master of symbol, the abstract stylist—of which The Touch could’ve used more. Grade: B-

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