Monday, November 24, 2008
Soon after exploding into stardom with films like MASH and BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, Elliott Gould decided to do the unexpected and took off for Sweden to appear in a film directed by no less than Ingmar Bergman. THE TOUCH, the result of this collaboration, is rarely seen these days but the UCLA Film & Television Archive screened the film the other night at the Armand Hammer museum in Westwood with the star in attendance. It was Gould’s own 35mm print that was shown, which he recently donated to the university. The film wasn’t very well-received at the time of its release in 1971 and doing some research on it I find references in articles to the “laughably miscast Elliott Gould”. Even Bergman himself was critical of the film several years later but though it stands slightly apart from the rest of his work, it doesn’t deserve to be dismissed so casually.
Almost immediately after arriving at the hospital to be told her mother has died only moments before, Karin Vergerus (Bibi Andersson) has a brief encounter with a man (Elliott Gould) who witnesses her immense grief. She tells him to go away and leave her alone but soon afterward she meets him again after her doctor husband Andreas (Max von Sydow) has met the man, an archeologist named David Kovac, under other circumstances. They have David over to their house for dinner and the three have an excellent time but just before leaving David tells Karin that he has fallen instantly in love with her. She doesn’t seem sure what to do with this information but soon she finds herself meeting David to begin the affair, which leads to beginning to learn just how tortured an individual he really is which begins to effect her in ways she never would have realized.
The first English language film made by the director, THE TOUCH cannot be considered an American film and the language issue keeps it from being entirely classified as a ‘Foreign’ film as well, placing it somewhere in between those two worlds. It goes without saying that casting someone like Gould in the role of David provides it with a tone unique to his films. It’s a fair question why Bergman even felt using him (or, for that matter, any American star) was at all necessary but it may simply be that he wanted someone who would automatically be an outsider and Elliott Gould certainly falls into that category. The language issue is not 100% successful with some post-synching evident and a vague feel of dialogue written in one language then translated to another, but in all honesty this was something which for me mattered less and less as the film went on. Within a simple plot is an extremely dense telling, with characters that become more complex the more we get to know them throughout the film. The death of her mother could be an impetus for Karin’s actions, possibly feeling at sea in life, but it couldn’t possibly ever explain why she makes the choices she does. And it certainly doesn’t explain why she feels so drawn to a man who can be so abusive towards her and is almost incapable of happiness, unlike her husband who offers her total and unconditional love. As her clothes are removed the first time she goes to bed with her new lover she says aloud an inventory of all the things physically wrong with her--her legs, her ass, her breasts and as we hold on her face the moment becomes beautifully raw. David is working on excavating a medieval church and in one scene he shows a Madonna, a symbol of all that is pure, that has long been walled up but now that it has been uncovered that larvae of an insect have begun to infect it, making it irretrievably damaged. The symbol is not difficult to grasp, but THE TOUCH tries to examine what really can happen once what is pure becomes infected by such an outside force. What did Woody Allen think of this film? Is it wrong to point out Bibi Andersson’s resemblance to Mia Farrow?
Bibi Andersson is shattering in the lead and always completely fascinating. Von Sydow has what would under other circumstances be the thankless role but that never happens here. For that matter, one particular close-up of him as he looks at his wife speaks volumes, more than any speech possibly could. Since we are able to look at the film now outside of the context of Elliott Gould as a star we can look at his performance for what it is, an outsider trying to find his way into this world, unable to fully state what he wants or why he is acting the way he is and that off-kilter screen presence that Gould always had in his best work comes though in his desperation. It’s searing and it’s painful. THE TOUCH got under my skin and even if I’m not the best person to talk about its view of marriage, how it deals with ideas of obsession and pure need are things that are very easy to latch onto. Maybe the high expectations of any film by Bergman at the time caused it to be criticized but such a reputation seems unwarranted and undeserved. Even the very end, which seemed unsatisfying in its tentative manner when I saw it the other night (it’s also immediately followed by the jarring logo and fanfare of Cinerama Releasing without any closing credits) has been haunting me over the past few days. Maybe that’s because there can’t really be an ending to this story. That pain, that insistence that things can only be a certain way is something that just goes on and on, unresolved.
After viewing the film with us in the Billy Wilder Theater, Elliott Gould walked on to the stage (“Don’t worry, you’ll be able to go home and see SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE soon,” he joked at the start) joined by Curtis Hanson who, among his many credits, wrote the screenplay for 1978’s THE SILENT PARTNER in which Gould starred. The actor placed the film in context of his career at the time, saying that when he was first offered the part and read through the manuscript (adding that it was more like a novel than a normal movie script) it scared him but after a phone conversation where Bergman called the actor ‘my little brother’ (Gould imitated the director in saying this) he realized that there was no way he could turn this down. The shoot seems to have been emotionally draining on him, with Gould being quoted here and elsewhere as saying that a few weeks into principal photography Bergman told him, “You have gone beyond your limits. You have to live more to understand what you’ve done.” But Gould stressed that he was welcomed immediately by the director and made a part of the family, with the intimate crew never consisting of more than twelve to nineteen people at any time. He also told of one key scene where Bergman thought he was keeping his eyes closed because of how unsure he was then the director talked him through these feelings, assuring him that “I won’t mislead you” in anything he would be told to do and Gould added that it was the best direction he’s ever gotten. It wasn’t until he arrived in Sweden when he learned just how autobiographical the film was for Bergman and when the character of David is looking through an album of family photos they are indeed of the director’s family, including a close up of his own mother’s photo, where David comments on how pretty she was. When Curtis Hanson asked about the rain that visibly begins to appear during the final shot, the actor said that it “just happened”, one of those happy accidents that truly enhances what we are seeing. He did state that he has always felt that shooting the whole film in English, as opposed to English for his scenes and the characters speaking Swedish otherwise, was a terrible mistake. But he also added Robert Altman’s own review of the film at the time which was to simply tell the actor, “You’ll never need to be better than that.” Gould makes it clear that he wasn’t so sure, but in listening to him speak about the experience of making this film with such a master it’s obvious that it is something he cherishes to this day.
One person did ask about the negative reception the film received at the time, but Gould waved it off and moved onto the next subject. It wasn’t something we needed to dwell on anyway. THE TOUCH is not at all well-known these days and it seems doubtful that it will be getting any serious reappraisal at any time in the near future but those who are fortunate to ever see it will discover a unique combination of artistic sensibilities. It was a privilege to see it under these circumstances.