Parenthood, relationships, and the creative process: three key elements of the cinema of Mia Hansen-Løve casually combine in Bergman Island, a playfully self-aware meta-portrait of the filmmaker and, indeed, of filmmaking itself. Introspective, inventive, and effortlessly calm; it follows a couple, both screenwriters, on an idyllic work retreat to Fårö, an island in the Baltic Sea (population: 498) just off the South East of Sweden. It’s the place Ingmar Bergman called home for the majority of his life, where he made many films and eventually died.
A story of prickly truths but no shortage of levity, it is a clear passion project for Hansen-Løve, a director whose work has always leaned as much toward the biographical as the cinephilic. Vicky Krieps stars as Chris, a filmmaker with a case of writer’s block, and Tim Roth is Tony, her older, more famous boyfriend. Hansen-Løve opens on their ferry ride to Fårö, windswept but content (we expect it wont last long.) Tony has come to the island to introduce a screening of one of his films, Chris joining to try beating the block. Hansen-Løve draws a line between the genders: she’s in her early 30s and has kids on the brain, he less so. In a scene with local historians, the couple discusses Bergman’s nine children and five wives (it isn’t hard to guess where their sympathies lie). They stay in a Bergman house and sleep in the bed from Scenes From a Marriage (as the guide informs them, “the movie that made millions of people get divorced.”) Chris begins working on a bittersweet romance, while Tony’s notebook contains sketches of BDSM. He says it’s a story about “the invisible things that circulate between a couple.” We join the dots.
Krieps is delightful in the role (all slouched shoulders and knitwear), and, working with an atypically juicy part, it is the best Roth has been in years. They are backed by a wide array of locals and real historians, who give this project its bona fides—even if they’re not entirely natural in front of the camera. It is not the first time Hansen-Løve has spoken so candidly about the sacrifices of a life in the arts, nor is it her most personal statement—The Father of My Children was directly influenced by the death of Humbert Balsan, the producer who funded her first feature, All is Forgiven. Almost all of Hansen-Løve’s films have drawn from some personal experiences and many have already read Bergman Island as an allegory about her split with Olivier Assayas, though she has never confirmed it.
Significantly, this is the first Hansen-Løve film set exclusively outside of France, and her first in English. (That the mood of being a tourist is there by design does not quite make it any less cringy.) There are trips to the Bergman cinema and to Bergman’s famous residence where Løve shows his library and his VHS collection. As Tony dips into the tourist traps (Lamb Burgers, Bergman Safari), Chris meets an amiable Swedish film student who takes her swimming, plays drunk Ludo, and talks Bergman. Absolutely everyone talks Bergman. With Eden, Løve had obsessed about a music scene, yet it had the first-hand feel of her brother’s lived experience and the world, as a result, felt seductive and real. Hansen-Løve can be forgiven for geeking out on the director but, for the first section at least, the film is nothing if not didactic.
Luckily Hansen-Løve is holding aces––and not for the first time in her career does she execute a daring hand-brake turn. The director has Chris overcome her block and flesh out the romance she’s been working on. Løve has her recite it to Tony on a long walk, but then cuts to show the thing in full––a film within the film. Resetting to the ferry, she switches Roth and Krieps with Anders Danielson Lie and Mia Wasikowska; though this time they are meeting for the first time—the irresistible first throes of love—as guests of a mutual friend’s wedding. Hansen-Løve also delicately shifts the tone and colors to something ever-slightly more Hollywood, a reflection of her character’s ideal (and perhaps her own)––a bold meta touch. The layers begin to pile up.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hansen-Løve film without at least one memorable needle drop. That she punts for ABBA probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given the locale, yet the choice of “Winner Takes All,” a slightly deeper cut, feels inspired, as does Wasikowska’s dance and reverie, and her beautiful stripy shirt–although I’m not entirely sure the moment is earned. Chris’ early melancholy is just as moving as her catharsis, and the landscapes (shot by Denis Lenoir, naturally offering reminders of Bergman’s work) are not short on Nordic grandeur. Hansen-Løve’s cinema has reached higher ceilings than this, but it is a restorative sojourn just the same.
Bergman Island premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will open in the U.S. courtesy of IFC Films.