Review: Bergman Island

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

Stars: Vicky Krieps, Mia Wasikowska, Tim Roth 

Creativity abounds in Mia Hansen-Løve’s English language debut, which finally reaches UK cinemas a year after debuting at Cannes. This is the quenching of a particular thirst, seeing as her last feature, Maya, didn’t even receive a release in this country. For British Hansen-Løve heads, then, this breaks a silence of nearly six years since the Isabelle Huppert showcase Things to Come.

In her new film, Anthony ‘Tony’ Sanders (Tim Roth) is a successful filmmaker who has taken a pilgrimage to the Swedish island of Fårö, famed as the adopted home of art house powerhouse Ingmar Bergman. Arriving with him is his partner Chris (Vicky Krieps). Both appear to be in search of inspiration for their separate writing projects. They even set up in opposing buildings on the same property. Tony in the main house that they’re renting; Chris in it’s cute garden windmill.

Here – with a typically light touch – Hansen-Løve remains judiciously coy about the extent of their relationship. Their shorthand familiarity and fitfully romantic interactions with one another suggest that they’re a long-married couple, yet Chris self-describes to a third party as Tony’s ‘friend’. And, all the while, Bergman’s legacy inevitably looms large over the picture, which plays self-reflexively with ideas of influence and inspiration. How these things begin. Where ideas comes from. When they vanish and the struggle to manifest the new.

Tony plays tourist around the island, even partaking in the annual ‘Bergman Safari’. His is the more studious, analytical approach to creating in the shadow of a master. Chris, however, explores in another way, connecting with the place via interactions with a spirited local student, Hampus (Hampus Nordensen) – a platonic connection that still applies an undercurrent of tension for its potentiality. Tony and Chris bicker occasionally over their differing creative processes (and a duplicitous glimpse into Tony’s private working practices acts as a lurid avenue within his own inner life), but by and large the drama between them is light and frivolous. Hardly the stuff of Bergmanian austerity. Chris’ musings on her dissatisfaction with the man’s legacy belies Hansen-Løve’s own, perhaps. Where in his work, she asks, is the joy in life?

Things become altogether slipperier come the second half of the film, when Chris feels confident enough to share her rough story idea with Tony, which then plays out as a film within the film. Hansen-Løve has previously employed a bisecting motif in her work; carving the likes of All is ForgivenThe Father of my Children and Goodbye, First Love into halves or even thirds. Previously, it has been the insatiable passage of time that has been her chief concern, jumping irrepressibly forward. Bergman Island divides differently, however. Here it is reality versus the inner world; the conjured one. As if to visualise her change of tack, Hansen-Løve literally has Chris take a clock off of a wall. We’re charting new territories.

Bergman Island 2021

It’s fitting given all the talk of Persona. If The Seventh Seal is Bergman’s most popular film (as cited here), then Persona is his most critically acclaimed, influential and revered. The theme of identities merging and converging becomes more apparent once Chris starts telling her story. Mia Wasikowska (gone too long from our cinema screens and wonderful to see again) plays her protagonist Amy, a young woman trying to reconcile an on-again-off-again relationship with Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) at a wedding also taking place on Fårö.

This extended portion of the film addresses, coyly, notions of inspiration and autobiographical bleed. Though clearly demarcated from her own life, there are intersections between Chris and Amy, made all the more apparent as Hampus makes appearances in her imagined world, embodying the same peripheral role. Indeed, as Tony later ruminates on telling a ghost story, one comes to wonder about Hampus’ almost spectral presence in both realities.

Now with two story lines edging forward in tandem, Hansen-Løve also manipulates the Bergman factor in it all; toying with expectations especially as life begins imitating art. The final scene of the film is as sun-dappled and effortless as any other in her body of work… yet carries an underscore of dread that is masterfully applied. As ever, Hansen-Løve shows a keen eye for musical accompaniment; eclectic choices both obscure and brazenly popular. And there’s playfulness here, too. What seems diegetic may not be, or vice versa. While phones ringing at inopportune moments become literal punctuations in the flow of the narrative.

Bergman Island pokes fun at (particularly male) cinematic gate-keeping, and can often play as a piece on the contrast between the sexes, both in creative and analytical methodologies. Hansen-Løve’s digs at ‘Film Bro’ culture – evidenced on Tony’s solo Bergman Safari and again at the imagined wedding – are both good-natured and dead-on. Still, even when lampooning such preening and preciousness, she acknowledges the passion that art perpetually evokes in people. Creativity may be abound, but inspiration is the real key to unlocking Bergman Island. It manifests where one least expects it sometimes, but it keeps us all alive and on our toes.

8 of 10

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