Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, October 15.
A young Parisian filmmaker whose delicately personal work (“Eden,” “Things to Come,” “Goodbye, First Love,” et al.) illuminates the unbearable lightness of being with the soft touch of a late summer breeze, Mia Hansen-Løve may not be the first 21st-century auteur who comes to mind when people consider the portentous legacy of Ingmar Bergman, a man whose cinema stared into the void in the hopes of seeing its own reflection, and shouted down God’s silence with such howling rage that even his comedies are probably still echoing in eternity. From a distance, the idea of Hansen-Løve shooting an homage to Bergman feels like the equivalent of, say, Kacey Musgraves recording a covers album devoted to the Swedish doom metal band Candlemass.
And yet, “Bergman Island” — a triple-layered meta-romance about a filmmaker who flies to Sweden with her partner and pitches him a screenplay about her first love — is such a rare and remarkable movie for the very same reason that you wouldn’t expect it to exist in the first place. Set on the remote skerry in the Baltic Sea that Bergman adopted as his home and began to terraform with his artistic persona after making “Through a Glass Darkly” there in 1961, Hansen-Løve’s zephyr-calm story of loss, love, and artistic reclamation draws such an extreme contrast to the scorched Earth films that have become synonymous with Fårö that even its nighttime scenes reveal the shadows that fiction has the power to cast across reality.
In other words, Hansen-Løve’s film isn’t really an homage to Bergman at all — at least not one that worships at his altar with the kind of orthodox piety required for Paul Schrader to refract “Winter Light” into “First Reformed.” While the iconic Swedish artist is amusingly inescapable in “Bergman Island” (his films are name-checked in almost every scene, many of which take place on the exact spots where they were shot or in the house where he wrote them), this supple puzzle-box is more interested in him as a means to an end.
Hansen-Løve is enraptured by the immaterial yet utterly transformative effect that Bergman’s cinema has had on the quiet ocean rock (population ~500) where so much of it was made. Through the disconnect between the physical fact of Fårö’s existence and the imagined fog that has settled over it in her mind’s eye, she discovers a perfect nexus for the personal and creative universes that have long overlapped in her semi-autobiographical — or perhaps more than semi-autobiographical — fiction.
If Hansen-Løve’s films are a loose archipelago of gentle tributes and remembrances, then “Bergman Island” is located smack dab in the center of her Bermuda Triangle. Shot in the scope aspect-ratio that its namesake never used, the movie begins as such an airy and lyrical Euro-drama that it’s hard to fathom the meta playfulness to come. And yet, from the moment that married filmmakers Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) arrive in Fårö, there’s a telling uncertainty as to what they’re supposed to be doing there.
Tony, the higher-profile of the two, has been invited to screen his latest feature and enjoy all the cinephilic fun the island has to offer (don’t miss The Bergman Safari!), and Chris has tagged along hoping the change of scenery might inspire some progress on her latest screenplay. But the vibe on the island is too detached and surreal for this getaway to feel like a work trip, per se, and when was the last chance they got to spend some time together away from the daughter they share in New York? On the other hand, there’s just something about sleeping in the same bedroom where Bergman shot “Scenes from a Marriage” that compels Chris and Tony to slink off into separate corners of the island and disappear into their private mind pockets. But that leads to problems of its own, as Chris struggles to shake Fårö’s oppressive calm, and feels Bergman’s ghost judging her with the disappointment of God every time she opens her laptop (“Writing here, how can I not feel like a loser?”).
By this point, no one who’s familiar with Hansen-Løve or the personal nature of her previous films will be able to stop themselves from assuming that Chris is her avatar, and that Tony is a stand-in for her famous ex Olivier Assayas, with whom she also shares a young child. It might be safe to say that Hansen-Løve is OK with that. In fact, she seems eager to do away with any kind of pretense.
For one thing, Krieps’ raw but flinty performance often feels like it’s based on her director. For another, “Bergman Island” so insistently maps the space between life and fiction that almost every line is soon glazed with a self-reflexive sheen. “I like a certain coherence,” Chris says about the relationship between an artist and their art. She jokes that she hopes Bergman had more fun in his life than he did with his movies, which — to her own confusion — she loves even though they hurt her so much to watch (in a scene typical of the film’s dry humor, she and Tony ask to screen a comedy in Bergman’s private screening room, only to get stuck with a print of “Cries and Whispers”). Other moments echo with a more explicable woundedness. Rolling her eyes at the fact that Bergman had nine children whom he seldom bothered to raise, Chris asks if it’s possible to create a “great body of work and raise a family at the same time,” and it’s not much of a leap to imagine that Hansen-Løve has asked herself the same question, even if Assayas never did.
That may sound like a spiteful dig in a movie where every detail eventually reverberates from fiction to reality and back again, but there’s nary a scintilla of cruelty in Hansen-Løve’s films, and that remains true here. If Chris and Tony’s relationship is clearly on the ropes, we only sense as much from the stale crackle in the air between them. “Bergman Island” is too knowing and lived-in to make its characters suffer through some big fight, or have them surrender to any of the temptations that casually avail themselves during these languid days of endless sunlight; the idea of their marriage has begun to erode, and there’s no building it back. The only real connection remaining between them (aside from their kid) is the mutual camaraderie of artists, and “Bergman Island” slips into a different plane of existence when Chris starts walking Tony through her latest script.
Change doesn’t come easy to Hansen-Løve’s characters, whose senses of identity are so anchored to their jobs that they often seem at risk of drowning in their dreams. What separates Chris from the rest — and what invites “Bergman Island” to add a vivid new dimension to Hansen-Løve’s work, building on her previous films without fulfilling Chris’ fear of self-repetition — is that her vocation as an artist is the very thing that sets her free. Inspired by Bergman’s example, Chris endeavors to construct a Fårö of her own imagination. A Fårö that might allow her to look at her terminal marriage through a glass darkly and find the resolve to gracefully liberate herself from Tony before it’s too late.
And so, as Chris begins to narrate the film within a film to her oblivious partner, we are spirited back and away into “The White Dress,” a Linklater-tinged romantic drama about a New York-based filmmaker named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) who leaves her kid at home and travels solo to Fårö for a friend’s wedding. It’s the last best chance she’ll ever have to reconnect with the boy on whom she based her popular first movie (an excellent Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph), and Amy fully intends on making the most of it. Bergman is a refuge for her, and also perhaps an invitation to act on her most festering regrets.
“The White Dress” is expertly threaded into the A-plot of “Bergman Island,” and jolts the film alive with a sense of fun and forbidden possibility (both of which are heightened by the fact that Chris is telling this obviously personal story to her current partner, and may not know where it’s going). Wasikowska is outstanding as a photocopy of a photocopy of Hansen-Løve, tense with all of Chris’ absent volatility and none of her implosive calm.
If Chris is Fårö, Amy is the island Bergman left behind. She dances to Abba and skinny dips in the ocean and wonders aloud what might have been if she’d wound up with the one who got away. The Sundance-y movie she made out of her relationship with Joseph would’ve been the best place for Amy to answer that question for herself (but if she missed the boat on that, maybe it’s not too late for Chris to learn from her mistake). The same is true for Hansen-Løve. What binds these three women together — other than an occupation, and the island where they’ve overlapped — is that they’re all in need of an ending. Or perhaps an escape. Whatever they’re looking for, it’s something they can only give to each other.
The journey to the shore is both elegantly simple and full of surprises, as the romantic intrigue ramps up even as the film’s parallel storylines begin to fray into more complicated shapes. Reality and invention blur in subtle but deeply stirring ways, as Hansen-Løve uses Chris to replace her memories of what really happened, and Chris uses Amy to do the same. Denis Lenoir’s sensitively crisp cinematography helps delineate between the various layers (which are never confusing on a narrative level), though it’s hard not to get a bit drunk on the midnight blues that locate Amy’s Fårö in a dusky kind of dreamworld.
That sense of twilight possibility seeps into the rest of the story as truth braids around fantasy; anyone hoping for a clearer or more concrete explanation of how Amy’s fate reflects on Chris’ future is liable to be disappointed by a final act that refuses to insult life’s messiness by laundering it through the easily digestible tropes of auto-fiction (even if that means easing up on the emotional oomph of it all, and sending audiences home with more of a love tap than a gut-punch).
“Bergman Island” is a heart-stoppingly poignant stunner all the same — one beating inside a body of work that has always been seasick with the bittersweet vertigo that comes from looking at the past through the smudged lens of memory and imagination. Unresolved as the last shots can seem, they leave us with a crystalline understanding of how reality colors fiction, and (perhaps even more importantly) how fiction can be used to return the favor. We hope that Chris will find the strength to stand on her own two feet, but we have little doubt that Hansen-Løve already has. While Fårö may always be synonymous with another great filmmaker, “Bergman Island” belongs to her.
“Bergman Island” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. IFC will release the film in the United States.
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