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‘Bergman Island’: How Mia Hansen-Løve Found Herself (And Her Work) in Her Most Personal Film Yet

Mia Hansen-Løve had long wanted to make an autofiction about married auteurs, but as she tells IndieWire, it didn't quite click until Ingmar Bergman died.

“Bergman Island”

Every filmmaker keeps a couple of projects simmering on the back burner, the kind that can stay there for years until something heats them up. Mia Hansen-Løve had long wanted to write a script about two married film directors. She had personal insights, after all: she was married for 15 years to older French auteur Olivier Assayas, who first met her as a teenager when she acted in two of his films before going off to college and becoming a filmmaker (they had one child and divorced in 2017).

But her idea wasn’t going anywhere until Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman died: Hansen-Løve just didn’t know that yet.

“I spend so much time with an idea of a film,” she told me backstage at the New York Film Festival, where her seventh feature film “Bergman Island” was warmly embraced, just as it was at Cannes earlier in the year. “It evolves continuously to the moment where you start writing. The starting point was the idea of making a film about a couple of directors, one day. That idea was with me along the way, while I was doing other films, on the side. I have an experience of what it is to live with a director and be a director myself, and trying to find a balance between your family life, being a couple, and creativity. And there may be a film about inspiration: it would be both about a relationship, but also the creative process within a couple.”

But nothing happened until Sweden’s Faro Island became the place to set that story.

After Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman died (July 30, 2007), Hansen-Løve was struck by a feature she read about him in Le Monde. “Of course, I was already a fan of Bergman,” she said. “I had seen a lot of his films, I had read ‘The Magic Lantern’ [autobiography], and he was already a mythical father figure for me somehow. Strangely enough, I had seen [his last feature] ‘Saraband’ maybe a year before, [which] had impressed me a lot. This review explained in a way that it became more real for me: Bergman wasn’t only this great creator living on his Island, very austere, very lonely and this cerebral image that he has, but he was also a great woman lover. He had many children. He was a sensual man.”

In fact, Bergman was married five times and produced nine children. Inspired by his creative life, Hansen-Løve visited his remote northern rocky island of Faro, where she was invited to screen some of her films on Bergman weekend, including “Goodbye First Love.”

“When I came for the first time,” said Hansen-Løve, “I just came with the starting point of a couple of directors spending the summer on Faro to write scripts. I didn’t know what exactly would happen. It’s the only time in my life that I went to a place to experience the film that I was writing, and that’s the way I wrote it.”

Bergman Island Behind the scenes

On the set of “Bergman Island”

courtesy of filmmaker

With “Bergman Island,” Hansen-Løve digs into autofiction with her alter-ego: writer/director Chris (magnetic Vicky Krieps), who is married to the older, more confident, and lauded auteur Tony (Tim Roth as a version of the director’s ex). The filmmaker conjures up Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” “Smiles of a Summer Night,” and “Wild Strawberries” as the couple settles into an idyllic summer retreat at his home on Faro Island, complete with screenings, lectures, bicycling, and island tours.

As the two writers each explore new stories, we dive into a movie within a movie, as Mia Wasikowska and Norwegian actor (and doctor) Anders Danielsen Lie (“22 July,” the upcoming “The Worst Person in the World”) come together at a wedding and reignite a bittersweet romance. In the movie, the couple Chris and Tony arrive on Faro, check out their house and separate writing digs, and instead of going with her husband on an official bus tour, Chris takes off on her own and bonds with brainy Faro expert Hampus Nordenson, a local essentially playing himself.

“It really happened like that,” said Hansen-Løve, who met Nordenson on her first trip to the island. “He represents the door not only to the fiction, but also to the present of the island. Otherwise, if it wasn’t him, the film [would] turn to the past, because it’s about Bergman, Bergman’s heritage, Bergman’s films. Hampus is the character who brings her to her own presence, to the instant, who lets her discover another island.”

"Bergman Island"

“Bergman Island”


Finally, while Bergman references are everywhere, he’s not what the film is about. “It’s what creativity is for that woman, how she manages to turn her weakness into mysterious strength,” said Hansen-Løve. “The film is about the invisible process that is my way of working, the only way I know how to make films. I wish I could just decide to make a film about that or this. I wish I could just decide who I am. … The only strengths that I have as a director, I got it from my from pains, from the weaknesses of my life.”

Part of that inherent difference between the younger creator and her more experienced husband is the understanding that, as a man, Bergman didn’t have to worry about raising his children while he was creating his films. And as every woman in a marriage knows, taking care of the kids usually falls primarily on the wife, not the husband.

A restaurant scene in which Chris and Tony debate this “is the heart of what the film really is about,” said Hansen-Løve. “It’s not about criticizing Bergman, but it just leads me to a reflection on the condition of women. When it’s about writing and being an artist, it’s different. And for me, the question is, ‘How can I be a filmmaker myself, when I’m not going to be like Bergman? When I’m not going to make kids and just leave them and make my films as if they don’t exist?’ I will never have that creative power that he had. I will never do 60 films and make nine kids at the same time. … There is a lot about this balance that I need to find between my personal life and my vocation. But it’s still my vocation. I do think it’s as important for me as it was for Bergman. It’s just different.”

“Bergman Island”

Another way to explore explore these characters was to place a film within the film, the one that Chris is writing. Hansen-Løve cast younger actors to portray Amy (Wasikowska) and Joseph (Danielsen Lie), who’ve fallen out of a sexual relationship but are reunited at a wedding.

The filmmaker shot the two sections separately, partly due to hideous last-minute casting issues (the original Chris and Tony, Greta Gerwig and John Turturro, dropped out, followed by replacement Owen Wilson at the last minute). Finally, the director had to shoot the film within a film first, and a year later, take on the Faro island section with Berlin-based “Phantom Thread” discovery Krieps, who she could see as a director, and Roth.

“During the first part of the film, the part where you really focus on Vicky and Tim, there are things going on that she cannot express within herself,” said Hansen-Løve. “The creativity takes so much space that there is not enough physical contact between them that is a source of suffering for her. The film in the film is like the other side of the same person. And the film studies how you can be both. She’s the same character, Amy and Chris.”

She continued, “At the end, it’s just two sides. It’s what fiction is about for me: revealing who you are and who you are not at the same time; who you cannot be, but who you are inside. There is a constant dialogue and tension between the characters you invented, the official characters that you create when you write very personal films, and who you are in your everyday life. Sometimes you use fictional characters to do things that you cannot do in real life, to emancipate when you cannot emancipate. It’s also an escape somehow, and it helps you live, cope. And also believe.”

And so Hansen-Løve could go back and forth during the writing process between the two sections of the film. “I feel I’m Amy, but I feel also I’m Chris,” she said. “And they are actually different, they are different kinds of women, but they are the same. It’s like two parts of myself.”

In the end, after five trips to Faro, Hansen-Løve fell deeply in love with the island. She’s going back next summer, she said: “It will be a writing place and a vacation place, because for me writing and vacation has always been pretty much the same.”

IFC Films will release “Bergman Island” in select theaters on Friday, October 15.

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