Love, life, work, creativity and cinephilia combine in this playful and perceptive Sweden-set drama starring the exceptional Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska.
March 10, 2022
Each filmmaker sits in the shadows of all who came before them — and as cinema's history lengthens, so will those penumbras. With Bergman Island, French writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve doesn't merely ponder that idea; she makes it the foundation of her narrative, as well a launching pad for a playful and resonant look at love, work and the creative wonders our minds conjure up. Her central duo, two filmmakers who share a daughter, literally tread where the great Ingmar Bergman did. Visiting Fårö, the island off Sweden's southeastern coast that he called home and made his base, Chris (Vicky Krieps, Old) and Tony Sanders (Tim Roth, The Misfits) couldn't escape his imprint if they wanted to. They don't dream of trying, as they're each searching for as much inspiration as they can find; however, the idea of being haunted by people and their creations soon spills over to Chris' work.
Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage has already been remade, albeit in a miniseries that arrived on the small screen a couple of months after Bergman Island premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival — but across one half of Hansen-Løve's feature, that title would fit here as well. Her resume has long been filled with intimate looks at complicated relationships, including in 2009's Father of My Children and 2011's Goodbye First Love, with her movies both peering deeply and cutting deep as they unfurl the thorny intricacies of romance. Accordingly, when Chris and Tony find themselves sleeping in the bedroom where Bergman shot the original Scenes From a Marriage, it's a loaded and layered moment several times over. That said, the thing about willingly walking in someone else's footsteps is that you're not bound to taking the exact same path — as Bergman Island's characters learn, and as the filmmaker that's brought them to the screen clearly already knows.
Turning in finessed and thoughtful performances, Krieps and Roth bring a lived-in dynamic to the film's first key couple, with the chaos that swirls from being in the same line of work but chasing disparate aims not just flowing but bubbling in their paired scenes. He's the kind of Bergman fan that's adamant about going on the Bergman safari, a real-life thing that all visitors can do, for instance, while she prefers being shown around informally by young film student Hampus (acting debutant Hampus Nordenson). But their Fårö escapades only fill half of Bergman Island, because the movie also brings Chris' budding script to life. She tells Tony the tale, seeking his assistance in working out an ending, but he's too immersed in Bergman worship to truly pay attention. The feature itself, Hansen-Løve and the audience all savour the details, though — eagerly so.
There, in this film-within-a-film, 28-year-old director Amy (Mia Wasikowska, Blackbird) visits an island, too — "a place like this," Chris advises, and one that visibly resembles Fårö. She dances to ABBA to cement the Swedish ties, and also spends her time on the locale's shores wading through matters of art and the heart. The catalyst for the latter: her ex Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie, The Worst Person in the World). They're both attending a wedding of mutual friends, and their lengthy, passionate and volatile history quickly pushes to the fore. While they've each moved on, they're also forever connected, especially when placed in such close quarters. Accordingly, that tumultuous relationship is as bedevilled by other creative endeavours, and also by the thrall of history, as Chris' quest to put pen to paper. And, via the movie-inside-a-movie concept, there's an evocative sense of mirroring that couldn't spring any firmer from Bergman himself.
Again, Hansen-Løve hasn't merely made her version of a Bergman film. As her screenplay-in-progress comes to life in the Wasikowska-led segments, Chris hasn't either. Rather, both muse on how fine the lines are between life, love and the myriad of influences that come everyone's ways — and if you know anything about Hansen-Løve herself, who was previously in a long-term relationship with fellow filmmaker Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper), it's easy to see yet another level of links between her situation and those played out in the movie. Perhaps that's why Bergman Island proves as savvy and soulful as anything in the director's career so far, including the stellar Eden and Things to Come, and as personal and profound as well. Not all helmers use their work to sift through parallels in their own existence, whether in fictionalised or semi-autobiographical form, but few do so as well as this.
Naturally, it helps when an actor as talented as The Phantom Thread standout Krieps is on hand to play Hansen-Løve's potential on-screen surrogate, and when the equally exceptional Wasikowska then arrives as the latter's own equivalent. The similarities between the two are counterbalanced by their contrasts, but they're constantly in sync either way — sharing mannerisms and reactions at times, juxtaposing different responses and actions at others, but consistently feeling like two halves of a whole. Individually and combined, their performances do what the very best manage, letting audiences into their characters' headspace and hearts alike. Of course, that's a skill that Hansen-Løve's quiet, patient, perceptive and expressive directorial style has always heightened, including her way with music; in mood and impact, that aforementioned ABBA scene sits up there with Eden's revelatory EDM-soundtracked moments.
Also essential: the mischievous vibe that floats through Bergman Island like a soft sea breeze, as aided by cinematographer Denis Lenoir (Eden, Things to Come) and editor Marion Monnier (a veteran of the same two films, and of Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, too). They shoot and edit with an enthralling sheen and rhythm that's part-dream, part-memory, part-emotional whirlwind — and, assisted by repeated props and costumes that pop up across its two sections, they each help the movie toy with where lines are blurred, what's pinned together and when various aspects nest like matryoshka dolls. Reality and fantasy weave in and out here, and in multiple ways. In a feature that unpacks the stories that surround relationships, careers, cinema and creativity, especially where celluloid reveries and the people behind them are involved, that's as natural as idolising auteurs like Bergman. Exactly who authors our lives, hope and ambitions, how and why, and what thrall we let them hold: that's another question this entrancing and ingenious filmic getaway also astutely contemplates.
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