|Writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve|
|ensemble cast with the director at Cannes|
|Vicky Krieps with Tim Roth|
|The director with Tim Roth|
|Bergman and friends on Fårö Island|
|Liv Ullman from Persona (1966)|
|Liv Ullman with Ingmar Bergman|
BERGMAN ISLAND B+ France Belgium Germany Sweden Mexico (113 mi) 2021 ‘Scope d: Mia Hansen-Løve
No one’s expecting Persona. —Tony’s (Tim Roth) reassurance to Chris (Vicky Krieps)
Ready for release last year for a Cannes Film Festival that never happened, due to Covid, so it sat on a shelf for a year, like a hidden secret. Some will see more to their liking in this film, while others will see less, as it’s all a matter of perspective and personal connection. Nearly two decades after Marie Nyreröd’s documentary BERGMAN ISLAND (2006), where she travels to Bergman’s home residence on Fårö Island to interview him extensively near the end of his life on a life of seclusion while also inquiring about his reflections both in cinema and theater, French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve has crafted a fictionalized tribute to Bergman, but seen through a much more delicate and subtle woman’s perspective. In what remains a male-dominated movie industry, Hansen-Løve has become a uniquely relevant voice, where this film is like a treasure hunt of embedded secrets, where the more you look, the more you find. Her first film spoken entirely in English, and the first of her films to play in competition in Cannes, it follows two married American filmmakers, Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), as they make a pilgrimage to Fårö Island to live in one of the Bergman houses doing a writer’s residency during a summer retreat, both expecting to work on film projects while living in the house where he shot SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973), the backdrop for his love affair with actress Liv Ullman, yet also, they’re quickly told, “the film that made thousands of people divorce.” (Do Swedes still blame Bergman for upping the divorce rate?) As if summoned by Bergman ghosts of the past, their relationship also hits some rocky spots, mirroring Bergman’s semi-autobiographical account of a marriage falling apart, as did the director’s own 15-year relationship with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, who is twenty-six years older (separated in 2017), with Chris more than a little sexually frustrated with the much older Tony, whose reserve seems to dominate their relationship, which he finds safe and comforting, a pattern that feels distancing to her, noting “All this beauty is oppressive.” On Bergman “Why didn’t he ever once try to explore happiness,” though it seems like with Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende) (1955) he did just that. Married five times with nine children (from six different women), what stands out to Chris is how Bergman neglected his children in the pursuit of his art, forcing the mothers to raise the kids alone, making it evident that Bergman was as cruel in his art as in his life. What’s also clear is that a woman would not have been able to do what Bergman did, as they’re judged by different standards, as women freely having children with different fathers in that era (or any era) is viewed completely differently than men. Men get a pass in the name of art, while women are critically bludgeoned for abandoning their children, like actress Ingrid Bergman, who was eviscerated by the tabloids for having an extra-marital affair, leaving her daughter behind to work with Roberto Rossellini and have their own child (Isabella Rossellini, star of David Lynch’s 1986 psychodrama BLUE VELVET), generating bags of hate mail, their film denounced by critics and boycotted across America, banned from appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, while excoriated on the Senate floor in 1950 by Colorado Senator Edwin C. Johnson who called her a “vile free-love cultist” and a “powerful influence for evil,” basically exiling her from the country (with the Senate belatedly issuing a public apology more than twenty years later in 1972). While Tony is an ardent admirer of Bergman, Chris admires his work, but loathes the man for the selfishness of his personal choices, unable and unwilling to connect with his children. This realization is at the heart of the picture, as Tony quickly takes the desk in their Bergman home, clearly assuming his partner is not his equal, seemingly uninterested in her work, also dismissive of her needs, forcing Chris to look elsewhere, taking refuge in an old mill, like a lighthouse with a windmill, with a small desk overlooking a window. The entire island is quite picturesque, very bright and sunny in the summertime, almost Rohmeresque, shot in ‘Scope on 35mm by former Olivier Assayas cinematographer Dennis Lenoir, expressing remarkable colors, while the everpresent Baltic Sea is always nearby. Chris regularly leaps into the water, like a wake-up call, where the physical exterior of the island offers a sensual release, while Tony prefers to gaze from afar and avoids the water altogether. Tony gets right into the project, working furiously in what appears to be a predetermined direction, while for Chris it takes some time to get her bearings, immediately missing her daughter June, spending more time on a bike exploring the island, a metaphor for the meandering exploration of the artistic process, while a developing storyline percolates in her imagination with multiple possibilities, entangled in a relationship (just like her own) with multiple dead-ends, where she seems to accentuate the moments between events, not the events themselves, a space where desire and curiosity lurk, fraught with anticipation. Of interest, Tony rides a girl’s bike while Chris rides a boy’s.
Hansen-Løve accurately portrays the life of the partner of an artist, consumed with their own space and time, not that of their partner, rigidly uncompromising in their viewpoints, starkly unaware of the thoughts of others, where you must accept the fact they simply lose themselves in their art, an intensely personal space that is strictly off-limits to you. In a prescient moment, Chris visits the house but finds Tony missing, so she lingers over the meticulous notes from his notebook, discovering sexually abusive drawings of women in degradingly submissive positions, seemingly out of synch with the overall pastoral serenity of the island, and the more gently probing imagination of Chris, yet what we see is decisively the male gaze. In a similar vein, Tony is the invited guest introducing one of his films during Bergman Week, where students from all over the world gather for screenings, seminars, and historical tours, the only week the entire year where 35mm prints are screened, as prints do not stay on the island because it’s too humid, so they’re preserved in Stockholm, with Tony interestingly revealing in a discussion afterwards that he’s only really comfortable exploring a central character that is female, which has a patronizing air coming from Roth, though it also represents Bergman’s mindset during his lifetime. As he’s busy with a Q & A, Chris wanders into a nearby gift shop and buys a pair of Bibi Andersson sunglasses (having forgotten her own), before exploring a nearby church where she meets Hampus (Hampus Nordenson, basically playing himself, having met the director on one of her excursions to the island), a film student also doing a residency whose grandparents are residents of the island, so his familiarity allows him to act as her own personal tour guide, while Tony fends for himself on the Bergman Safari, the name emblazoned on the side of a bright yellow school bus exploring the island with residency students and a tour guide, including a woman who’s knitting throughout the entire tour. Hampus shows her Bergman’s grave alongside the island’s only church while informing her he and his girlfriend were the only ones in the theater watching her most recent film, getting into an argument afterwards, as he liked it but she didn’t, then breaking up afterwards. The grave is in a stone-walled cemetery overlooking the sea, isolated under a shade tree, with Hampus revealing nobody really cares about him in Sweden anymore, as he’s become a forgotten artist. Yet these pilgrimages are made in honor of his works, something of a cineaste’s dream, taking a Bergman pilgrimage to Fårö Island, a simply wonderful experience this film revives, with fewer than 500 full-time residents who are loathe to even acknowledge Bergman, so when visitors ask where Bergman’s house is, local islanders tend to ignore them or point in the opposite direction, as he’s responsible for attracting these hordes of interlopers who upset the serenity of the island, spoiling the natural solitude and remoteness of the region, as up until 1998, the island was off-limits to foreigners as a protected military zone. Yet you don’t have to be an artist or scholar, as applications are accepted from anyone, where accommodations are free so long as you reimburse the community in the form of a cultural event (Application - The Bergman Estate on Fårö). Tony’s group experience is surprisingly different than the personalized tour from Hampus, yet it produces its own revelations, as one of the residency students is Gabe Klinger, Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013) and Porto (2016), where this good fortune to be in a Bergman tribute film on Fårö with an elite filmmaker sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime. What better way to ride out the Covid pandemic than to retreat to such an isolated island, yet there is no sign of the pandemic or masks anywhere in the film, giving it a timeless effect. While Chris enjoys the sand dunes of Ullahau, Tony visits the site of Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel) (1961), discovering no home was ever built there, as it was only a movie set that came down after the completion of the film, so no signs remain, while also visiting the site of Persona (1966), with a mentally deteriorated Bergman rejuvenated by the experience, claiming it was the film that saved his life. Bergman was so enraptured by what he found on Fårö, the isolation and rugged beauty matched his own inner landscape, offering a sense of solitude, never leaving the island again after 2004. The director provides her own unique musical interludes during the travel excursions, either by ferry, car, or bus, choosing harp music by Robin Williamson Robin Williamson - Gwydion's Dream - YouTube (1:57) from the Incredible String Band, providing a gentle backdrop for what is ultimately a pilgrimage seeking a quest for knowledge, where the trip to the island of Fårö is pure enchantment.
While Tony is too wrapped up in his own work to offer true affection, remaining brazenly oblivious to what’s going on with Chris through most of the film, but the biggest surprise overall is the director’s choice of a film-within-a film, elevating the material to a different level, literally transforming what we see into something altogether different, as what was a merging of the artistic experiences and perspectives of Tony and Chris is reduced entirely to the female point of view, where the film she has been working on suddenly takes shape and plays out onscreen, with Chris narrating the film to a continually distracted Tony. Seen exclusively through the eyes of Amy (Mia Wasikowska), who narrates the story, an American filmmaker in her late 20’s is travelling to Fårö for the wedding of a friend Nicolette (Clara Strauch), who is marrying a Swede named Jonas (Joel Spira), where she hopes to rekindle a love affair with Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), having had a passionate affair earlier when they were just fifteen, but the timing was wrong, yet she has continued loving him from afar, reminiscent of Hansen-Løve’s earlier film Goodbye First Love (Un Amour de Jeunesse) (2011), where a young woman struggles to overcome the attachment she still feels for her first love, with Sophie Monks Kaufman from Little White Lies suggesting “Bergman Island is the last chapter to Goodbye First Love.” (Bergman Island first-look review – Mia Hansen–Løve's tender ...). While the early excitement of spending time together seemingly goes well, the film accentuates the stronger emotional intensity of Amy, even during the wedding ceremony, when Joseph largely avoids her. Making matters worse, Joseph is staying at the centrally located Bergman House, one of the larger accommodations, with suggestions that there’s room enough for two, while Amy is farther away, having to travel a greater distance while remaining isolated from most of the wedding activities. The reception is at a large house on a lake, with an open bar and music playing, with Amy feeling somewhat aloof, uncertain of how she feels, with Joseph approaching her to dance, completely unaware of the bewildering effect he’s had on her, but then they decide to visit a sauna by the beach and go skinny dipping before having sex, but she’s devastated to hear he’s repeatedly been unfaithful to his girlfriend, something that doesn’t register with Joseph, who just claims it’s all a part of life. By morning, however, he’s the one grown cold and distant, claiming what they did was a mistake, a betrayal of his relationship, leaving her even more confused, as Joseph takes on an air of nonchalance, basically giving her the brush-off. The storyline is a choreography of ever shifting emotions, changing on a dime, as reality rarely meets expectations, growing confused by the constant re-evaluation of the circumstances, as the director cleverly uses musical period pieces by Tina Charles, I Love To Love - Bergman Island (2021) (1:53), and ABBA, Bergman Island - The Winner Takes It All YouTube (2:50), to provide an interior narration, as she makes every attempt to keep the flame alive, but Joseph just doesn’t cooperate, making promises he can’t keep, simply avoiding her before slinking off the island the next morning without a word, which leaves her demoralized and crushed, not knowing what to do, left in a state of heartache, perhaps an indicator of what’s in store for her. Chris asks Tony for help with an ending, but he defers, claiming she’ll figure it out, preoccupied by a phone call, where his own life gets in the way, abandoning her as well, escaping the island for a few days in meetings with his producers, leaving her in a lurch. She takes a bicycle ride to Lauter, home of the Bergman Estate, situated in a pine forest overlooking the sea, wandering inside where she runs into Hampus again, showing her the vast library before he exits, needing to catch a ferry, while she dozes off on the sofa, awakened suddenly by the actor Anders Danielson Lie, as himself, who expresses disappointment that she didn’t write a scene for them in this house, which he’s always wanted to see. The lines between fiction and reality somehow merge together, meeting up later with Mia Wasikowska as herself, where this dreamlike blend represents what’s taking place in her subconscious imagination, something of an ode to the passage of time, with lingering reflections of youth, but the money shot is saved for the end, with Tony returning with June, who runs into the waiting arms of Chris, freeze frame on that glorious smile. In contrast to Bergman, and perhaps Tony as well, Hansen-Løve makes it clear that a woman’s maternal instincts ultimately prevail, making a case for personal happiness. Hansen-Løve belongs to a school of filmmakers making personal films that resemble their own autobiography, writing her own screenplays, subverting expectations, using art as a catharsis for her own internal struggles, much like Bergman did, with both routinely making films while looking at themselves in the mirror, but the joy of this film is associating the somber spectrum of Bergman over her gentler, more tenderly understated style, where clearly she’s influenced by the Swedish master, but troubled at the same time, hating the man he was, while loving the sublime art and poetry of his work. At bare minimum, while making a liberating statement about her own tenuous relationships, perhaps finding a way to extricate herself from a strained affair, this film resuscitates Bergman’s relevance on a new generation of filmmakers, placing him front and center in the impassioned personalization of cinema.