The Touch

At the Harvard Square

Our favorite part of the Wellington Victory overture is when there's musketfire and everybody plays "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." We can just see old Beethoven, deaf as a coffee table, pounding his staff out of tune with the music, having a swell time, and musing over a new piece for that young violinist Kreutzer. Everyone has his bad days. You'll probably want to see The Touch, Ingmar Bergman's first English language motion picture, for yourself: go to an early show with your best friend and a bag of leechee nuts.

The plot is a simple one. David Konrad (simianly played by Elliot Gould), a sexually unbalanced German-American Jewish professor from London arrives in Sweden, finds Karin Bloch (Bibi Andersson) pining in a convalescent home coat closet and falls haplessly in love. To complete the obligatory triangle, the too-busy husband, Andreas (acted, Thank God! by Max von Sydow), makes an occasional phone call or brilliant goodbye on his way to and from the hospital. He is a surgeon, by the way, not an invalid; we see Elliot Gould sprawled in a graveyard, and the claim, at least, is that he's an archaeologist. Andreas invites David to dinner, David soon invites Karin to bed ("Well, why don't we just take off all our clothes and get into bed and see what happens"), and for the rest of their evening, and the rest of the film, nothing much does--except that Karin is found out and grows large with child, as director Bergman reaches elbow-deep in the grab-bag of cinematic cliches.

Of course it isn't fair to judge a drama by its plot line alone: Shakespeare stole his, and none of them would win at Cannes. We should consider also the important elements of language, characterization, poetic vision and nobility of sentiment, all of which we have appreciated in The Passion of Anna and Persona as well as in Lear.

Supposedly there is a version of The Touch in which the lovers speak English to each other and Swedish is spoken when the Blochs are at home. In the version we saw, currently playing at the E.M. Loew's Fine Arts Cinema II in Portland, Me.--beneath the unpromising marquee "Directed by Inga Bergman"--everyone speaks English, except for Gould, who for all the world sounds like Charles Bronson in a Japanese shootem-up. And Bergman's sententious (nee "sensitive") English script pays no more attention to the way people really talk than Gould's jerky rendition pays to the way they screw. That about does it for the language.

Characterization: Max von Sydow, still the world's greatest living actor, performs his exits with dignity and control, answers the phone and adjusts his glasses, opens car doors, and sleeps, in what are certainly the film's most memorable frames--with the probable exception of the donkey, who appears briefly in a slide show staged for David's entertainment. ("Andreas," David muffles, "can't I see a picture of your wife NOOOD?") But seriously, von Sydow's performance in a confrontation with Gould, and in one with his wife, is miles above everything else in this hokey genre-piece, the latter scene giving him the opportunity to proclaim with Bergmanic suggestiveness that "this drama has been going on for two years; how long can suffering be prolonged?" Something deep within us sighs--at last the director breaks through to his audience. Meanwhile, Karin has been heaving her veiny yet ample bosom at everyone in sight ("My ass is too big, and my legs are too short," she tells us, and they are), and Elliot Gould pouts and breaks furniture with the best of them. We had thought he wasn't a versatile actor, but The Touch demonstrates once and for all that not only is there hair on his cinematurgic chest, but also on his face, back, shoulders, and teeth. So far as motivations go, we were hard pressed to see what anybody saw in anyone else, except for Max, whom everybody likes as a friend, and who deserves a prize of some sort just for sticking with it to the end.

Poetic vision and nobility of sentiment were playing last week in a double bill at the Brattle.

There are serious themes stepped on and touched upon (get it?) in the film's unguarded moments. Bourgeois society is given another well-deserved kick in the head, and there is some heavy talk about this Madonna which is being eaten by maggots, and they don't know how it got there. There is also some stuff about communication, and Gould gets the chance to glower the word "touch", or one of its close derivatives, an astounding seven times in the space of a single breathless close-up.

It is interesting to see a garbage movie by a great director: the Bergman attention to detail is there, the symbolism machine churning, with ingenuity if without a point or poignancy. But somehow Bergman's most basic instincts have failed him. It is said he decided to cast Gould in The Touch after seeing not MASH, but I Love My Wife, where Gould, fresh from Candy Bergen and Getting Straight, and well on his way to becoming an almost-was, turned in a performance as smarmy as the one he gives here.

Providentially, the opening of The Touch in Cambridge this week coincides with Gould's much-heralded appearance here to receive the Lampoon's Worst Actor of the Year award. Gould's ingratiating good-guy performance at Sanders Theater last weekend, before a stink of cantankerous thrill-seekers (including many bolsheviks and "hippies"), was demonstration perhaps that he is rank only on film, and might live happily and successfully as ice cream man or door-to-door stockbroker. To betoken our good will, we have deleted from paragraph five a particularly gratuitous and leering reference to Barbra "Color Me Barbra" Streisand.

One more flash-in-the-pan for Bergman fans: everyone manages to notice the broken tricycle during Bibi Andersson's naked crying-jag in the stairwell scene; the camera lingers long enough to mark the symbolism. We have no definitive answers, but "Rosebud" ought to be enough to start the search for meaning.