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Simply the Worst: Ingmar Bergman’s “The Touch”

Simply the Worst: Ingmar Bergman's "The Touch"

In November 1971, Ingmar Bergman married his fifth—and final—wife, Ingrid Karlebo, to whom he would stay married until her death in 1995. Released only a few months earlier, The Touch, with its themes of infidelity and stifling bourgeois domesticity, seems a strange way to mark the occasion, but then surely the new Mrs. Bergman must have had a good idea of what she was getting herself into. Less could be said for Bergman himself on that particular film, which found him working outside of his usual discomfort zone in more ways than one.

The Touch remains a notoriously tricky film in Bergman’s sizeable filmography, even if its deviations from the director’s remarkably consistent body of work at first seem only superficial. The story of a middle-class housewife who embarks on a prolonged and obsessive affair with an emotionally troubled archaeologist visiting from America, the film was his first venture into English-language cinema, backed by a bunch of yanks from a film-production arm of ABC Television, but aside from the casting of American actor Elliott Gould, there are few other notable personnel changes. Bergman, still in the midst of his precipitous one-film-per-year schedule, retained the most stalwart members of his coterie, including stars Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow, and his usual production team, led by producer Lars-Owe Carlberg and master cinematographer Sven Nykvist.

Its familiarity of themes and characters (and characters’ names!) make The Touch seem like pro forma Bergman, especially compared to The Serpent’s Egg, the director’s only other English-language venture, made in Germany while Bergman was in tax exile, and often considered his biggest failure. But that film, with its grungy Weimar Berlin setting and dark, crypto-historical sweep, was at least a reach for Bergman—an interesting experiment, neither wholly successful nor embarrassing. The Touch, by contrast, is, in fact, exactly the kind of film that one, with a knee-jerk politique des auteurs, may feel obliged to defend: a maligned work that nonetheless betrays the underlying, but univocal idiosyncrasies of its author. It is a film maudit not because it suggests a filmmaker struggling with his material, but because the film falls short of the mark even while it remains so close to Bergman’s other work. In this way, it’s the film maudit at its most maudit: the self-parody. Read the rest of Leo Goldsmith’s entry in Reverse Shot’s “Simply the Worst” symposium.

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