Color, 1971, 114 mins. 24 secs.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Elliott Gould, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Sheila Reid
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD), Studio S (DVD) (Sweden R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
You'd think that the first English-language film directed by the globally lauded Ingmar Bergman would be a well-remembered classic, but for some reason The Touch has been barely mentioned for the past four-plus decades and has remained almost entirely out of the public eye, barely even making it to home video at all for a long time. Part of the problem, as revealed in the BFI's exceptional dual-format release, may been the insistence that he create two version, one mixing English and Swedish while another was (illogically) all in English from start to finish. The latter is what played American theaters and hit VHS in 1981 from Magnetic Video, after which it disappeared completely for most English-speaking viewers for a very long time. The film wasn't critically lambasted when it opened, with reviews ranging from complimentary to mild disappointment; however, it quickly faded from the collective memory of the moviegoing public with even Bergman himself dismissing it in later interviews. Fortunately the film itself has aged well and can easily be appreciated as a worthy entry in his peerless body of work.
Happily married to a man named Andreas (von Sydow) in a middle-sized Swedish town, stay-at-home mother Karin (Andersson) finds herself torn when she becomes drawn to a new visitor, American architect David (Gould), who's working on restoring a local church. An affair begins between the two after he claims to be in love with her during a liquor-sipping early dinner, a feeling he's had since seeing her crying in a hospital hallway. David isn't the classiest fellow in the world, early on requesting her husband Andreas (von Sydow) to see a nude photo of her during a tedious slide show, and his behavior doesn't get a whole lot better later on. Violent and sullen, he appeals to a suppressed side of her that doesn't seem to be operating in her best interests as the relationship goes on for several months (including a lengthy separation) and ultimately reaches a crisis point.
Beautifully shot by regular Bergman cinematographer Sven Nyvist, The Touch is a fascinating example of how to spin drama and emotional tension out of small human behaviors rather than a traditional storyline, which in this case is fairly traditional and gossamer thin. The interaction between Karin and David can be either warm and tender or harsh from scene to scene, with something as simple as smoking a cigarette triggering a volatile confrontation. Likewise a simple night at home with Andreas is fraught with meaning, even if they're simply sitting down for a quick game of chess, and one character's significant change in physical appearance over halfway through is a canny reflection of the themes of evolution and personal gratification running beneath the surface. Bergman was always a maestro at using film's physical space to reflect the relationships of his characters and that's in evidence throughout this film as well, with warm earth tones in this case giving it an inviting, cozy feeling that often contrasts with the tension at the core of its main romantic relationship. It also belongs to that odd '70s subset of films that wring visual interest out of characters restoring the interiors of European churches (see also: Don't Look Now and Obsession) as a symbol
The 2018 dual-format BFI edition featuring separate Blu-ray and DVD discs is big news for Bergman fans, featuring the HD home video premiere of the feature as well as what will be a first-time viewing experience of the intended English/Swedish edition for the majority of viewers. The restoration courtesy of the Swedish Film Institute looks terrific and wholly appropriate to its era; the colors and grain texture look authentic and impressive throughout, and it's a real joy to finally see this film in good condition after so long. That said, it's questionable whether it's great to have so much of Gould's bountiful back hair as part of the increased detail. (The restoration was released almost simultaneously on DVD in Sweden as part of a much pricier Bergman boxed set.) The LPCM mono track also sounds excellent with optional English subtitles for the Swedish passages (basically every scene that doesn't involve Gould). The restoration of the original (hard matted) widescreen framing makes a huge difference as well if you've only seen this on video, with this version running slightly longer as well. The bilingual version of the film definitely plays better as it gives more context to the sometimes stilted conversations between Gould and Andersson, with the latter conversing far more naturally with her family members.
The big extra here is "Ingmar Bergman" (55m12s), a mixture of interview footage with the director and on-set footage showing him at work on several scenes from the film. It's fascinating to see the entire team (including Nykvist) chatting and smiling between takes, and in a fun bit of irony, Gould is seen smoking a stogie while he's interviewed. "Liv Ullman in Conversation" (71m57s) features a 2018 Q&A with the legendary Bergman star at a BFI screening, sharing numerous stories about the director with interviewer Geoff Andrew including extensive perceptive comments about a wide range of films (some with her participation and others without) as well as the final days before his death. Finally, "Sheila Reid: The Touch" (20m39s) features the actress - who plays a small but pivotal (and possibly very perverse) role in the film's finale, and the only British actress in one of the director's films according to the packaging -- recalling the casting and rehearsal process, including revelations about Bergman's working methods. The insert booklet features a new Geoff Andrew essay, "The Human Touch," about the film's merits and its connection to the previous Bergman film, The Passion of Anna; also also included are a contemporary review by Jan Dawson and additional notes about the bonus features.
Reviewed on April 28, 2018.