There is no place on Earth tied more firmly to a filmmaker than Fårö is to Ingmar Bergman. One cannot venture through the small island without being reminded of him at every turn: The rugged, ominous seascape that lurks in the background of Persona (1966); the carcass of a farmhouse that was burned down during the filming of Shame (1968); the seafront estate that the director called home for 40 years. And, of course, there’s the house where Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Bergman’s wildly popular and subversive marital drama, was filmed. That’s where Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) plant themselves at the start of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island. The couple, both writers and directors, are participating in an artist’s retreat to see if being in the shadow of the Swedish filmmaking giant will help get their creative juices flowing. What begins as a straightforward story of two artists creating different projects ultimately turns into Hansen-Løve’s strongest argument for the inextricable nature of life and art yet.
On both personal and artistic levels, Chris and Tony are besieged by Bergman’s ghost the moment they set foot on the island. The woman who shows the couple into their house, for example, makes sure to give them the dismal news that Scenes from a Marriage was responsible for a huge uptick in divorce rates upon its release. Later, Chris tells her husband that she finds working where so much of Bergman’s brilliant work was concocted oppressive. Still, the couple just can’t seem to hold back from persistently discussing the filmmaker’s achievements, and fighting over which of his films to watch on the island. (Anything but The Seventh Seal, of course, which Tony hates).
It’s moments like these that remind us that this is undeniably a Hansen-Løve film. Indeed, the director has a uniquely intellectual filmmaking style, seen in Nathalie Chazeaux’s (Isabelle Huppert) philosophical ramblings in Things to Come or the youthful literary discourse of Eden. Over-intellectualizing in a screenplay can make for a dull film, but Hansen-Løve’s interest in cerebral matters isn’t merely prosaic—it makes her characters much richer, and her stories invariably full of life.
This, of course, wouldn’t be the case without uniquely stellar performances. In Bergman Island, Krieps steals the show as a fidgety, passionate and overly sentimental artist. The strength of her performance, which shines through by way of Krieps’s vulnerability and youthfulness, is only emphasized by the fact that her character bears a great deal of resemblance to Hansen-Løve herself, who had a famous relationship with another public creative figure, Olivier Assayas.
Because of Bergman Island’s autobiographical undertone, alongside its resemblance to Scenes from a Marriage, it’s difficult not to, at first, look at it through the lens of a marital drama. From the first moments of Scenes from a Marriage, Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) are very clearly losing touch with one another. Their relationship is functional but largely unromantic, which ultimately drives them apart irreparably. At first, the same seems to be the case with Chris and Tony. And from a narrative standpoint, this rift is almost a little too convenient. The fact that Chris and Tony are staying in the bedroom in which one of the most infamous divorces in film and television history sparked, too, feels like enough of a cruel joke as it is. And the apparent tension bubbling between our protagonists only makes things worse.
But what’s so satisfying about Bergman Island is that it ultimately defies all personal and creative expectations placed on it by its association with Fårö. At one point, Chris asks one of the Bergman scholars on the island if she thinks it’s possible to have a successful career as a filmmaker and raise a family. The woman replies: “At the age of 42, Bergman had directed 25 films. How do you think he would have done that if he was also changing diapers?” Naturally, as an artist with a young daughter, Chris is troubled by this response. But her time on Fårö sparks an empowering realization for her: She is enamored by Bergman, but she doesn’t want to be him. Just like she rejects her husband’s artistic process, but is still supportive of his work. She wants to be her own artist. Indeed, this is as much a film about Bergman as it is one about a decaying marriage. This is a film about standing in the shadow of an artist you love, and still having the courage to go your own way.
And go her own way she does. While on Fårö, Chris begins to dream up an idea for a new film, inspired by her own first love. As she narrates to Tony, the film comes to life: A young woman named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) arrives at Fårö for a wedding and is reunited with her old lover Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie). Bergman Island’s film-within-a-film is an explosive reflection of Chris’s inner state as an artist. Amy and Joseph’s story is gracefully imbued with possibility, only furthered by Wasikowska’s tender, emotional performance. Their B-plot is told with the same nimble vigor as Chris and Tony’s story, but with more of a breezy, unrestrained edge. Amy dances to ABBA and skinny dips at night. Nothing feels forced about the two narratives: They are perfectly woven together both by Hansen-Løve’s subdued, effortless directorial style and Marion Monnier’s artful editing, until each feels like it could not exist without the other. When the two storylines melt into abstraction, it feels perfectly organic.
The film’s self-reflexivity is a bold statement on creation. Hansen-Løve’s films have always had such a strong overtone of humanity, with a deep focus on emotions and characters unafraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves, that it only makes sense that her final statement in Bergman Island is that being an artist is a deeply, deeply personal thing. With the backdrop of Bergman, the film suggests that, additionally, it’s a powerful thing to be inspired by an artist. But what’s even more fulfilling is to be inspired by an artist and still reject their methods of creation in favor of your own.
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Writer: Mia Hansen-Løve
Stars: Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, Anders Danielsen Lie
Release Date: October 15, 2021
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.