Perhaps a more fitting title for Ingmar Bergman’s 1971 fidelity drama The Touch, would be The Choice. Such is the dilemma that faces the protagonist Karin (Bibi Andersson), she must choose between two men she loves and in the process discover more about herself. Bergman’s incisive screenplay and a spectacular turn from Andersson lend The Touch something of a quiet brilliance, beginning with a tremor, it ends with tumultuous consequence.
Karin’s marriage is one of contentment. She and her doctor husband Andreas (Max Von Sydow) are genuinely happy in their routines and shared interest in horticulture. Though there are few surprises, they enjoy an intimate and comfortable existence, bathed in familiarity. Which makes it all the more stunning when visiting foreign archaeologist David (Elliot Gould) declares his love for her, and she reciprocates in kind.
David awakens something in Karin, she begins to look at everything in a different way, with renewed vigour. Bergman watches her reactions closely as she accompanies David to a local church where he is assessing a find, a hidden figure, buried between the walls of this place, so familiar to Karin. The figure is a woman, smiling knowingly in her unveiling.
Andreas is a harmless, reassuring presence in Karin’s life, David is the antithesis. He is amorous, persistent with his desire for her, dangerous. When she visits him for the first time in his shabby apartment, she tends to the withering flowers on his coffee table. She carefully gives them the chance to revive their beautiful bloom, a feeling David is providing for Karin. Their affair begins, slowly and strangely. There is palpable hesitation, they both know that their tryst is wrong, yet they match each others desire in turn. He goes from pursuer to pursued as Karin responds to his advances with her own.
Drawn to a damaged soul, Karin is unable to pull away from David, despite his violent outbursts and uneven temperament. A survivor of the Jewish Holocaust, David is understandably emotionally scarred, he becomes possessive of Karin, unable to handle her small allowances of time, pushing her to choose as she tries to enjoy her new life outside of monogamy.
Bergman intelligently begins to frame the two couples as the affair draws on. As the married couple begin to be seen further apart, speaking in short sentences to each other, Karin smiling weakly, David and Karin are filmed up close, telling each other intimate stories, their love making violent and passionate. When Karin and Andreas are seen making love, it is only briefly, and, from a voyeurs perspective as the camera peaks through the doorway, far from the raucous, destructive affair.
In the end the film is about Karin, the two relationships showing her different paths she may take. Bergman creates a distinctly unsettling feeling the longer the affair continues, an unease that Karin herself must be nearly overcome by. It’s the sense of self that is most potent, as Karin struggles to choose, more and more it is apparent, that she is trying to decide who she is, tapping into the heart of existential fear.
The Touch is available now on DVD & Blu-Ray courtesy of the BFI.